The Chinese have a stronger claim on Pearl Buck than the Americans do…


Pearl Buck receives the Nobel Prize for Literature from King Gustav V of Sweden, Stockholm, 1938.

From World Literature Today:

I have no intention of rehearsing yet another diatribe against the Swedish Academy’s Nobel committee in Stockholm, which, as is well known in US publishing circles, hasn’t awarded its prize in literature to an American writer since 1993. A few years back, Horace Engdahl, a member of the academy, justified the rejection by stating—famously—that Americans are “too isolated, too insular,” and that we “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Expectedly, the response from our quarters was fast and furious: the Nobel in literature, the most outspoken decried, has become irrelevant. How else to explain the fact that obscure European honorees keep on being chosen while brilliant craftsmen like John Updike and Philip Roth are ignored? One of the literati was even quoted as offering to “send Engdahl a list” of American writers worth reading.

We may wish to rationalize the rejection in a number of ways. We could pretend, for instance, that we don’t care a bit since the Nobel is only about sales, whereas good literature is . . . well, about being good. Or we could argue that it is dangerous to align the Nobel, and literature in general, across national lines. Think of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who got it in 1978. Is he an American writer? Singer was a refugee from Poland who came to the United States when he was already thirty and who wrote most of his work not in English but in Yiddish. How about Joseph Brodsky, who was born in Russia—or better, he was born into the Russian language? The only true country a writer can claim is the language in which he writes.

In any case, the Nobel is supposed to celebrate individual talent, not nationality, which in and of itself is an amphibious concept. Ever heard of Pearl Buck, the American Nobelist of 1938? Well, Buck wasn’t an American through and through. She lived almost her entire life, up until the publication of her enduring novel The Good Earth, in China. At least two new biographies of Buck have been published in the past decade, and several of her books remain in print and widely read. But the Chinese have a stronger claim on her than we do. To fashion her as an American to boost the Nobel list smells of utilitarianism. In addition, the Nobel committee in those days was still laboring under the edict of Nobel’s will about “idealist” literature. Now take Jorge Luis Borges, who unquestionably should have received the prize, especially given that no Argentine has ever been selected. Yet his reputation, mind you, is intact without it; and I’m not sure Borges would have liked to have been awarded the Nobel because he was an Argentine, since the adjective made him uncomfortable. All this to say that good literature is never good by committee.

“Is American Literature Parochial?”, Ilan Stavans, World Literature Today