A couple of weeks ago, the Nobel committee in Stockholm announced that Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Congrats, Tomas Transtromer! But apparently I’m in the minority over here in the US, because Americans in general have been booing the Nobel Prize for a few years now, ever since Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, denounced American literature as “too isolated, too insular” and essentially said we would probably never win another Nobel in lit. “[American writers] don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
But shortly after the announcement of this year’s prize, I was listening to an interview on NPR with Alexander Nazaryan, who said — as he did in his much longer editorial on Salon.com — that the Nobel committee is right: we don’t deserve the prize. “We’ve become a nation of literary narcissists,” Nazaryan said on the radio. “Part of that comes out of the write-what-you-know tradition, which I think must be taught in every single MFA program.”
As a participant in an American graduate program in creative writing (though mine was a PhD, not an MFA), I can tell you that there’s a lot of truth in this. “Write what you know” has been the de rigueur axiom for all American writers for decades now, and while it has worked out great for some American writers, it has become problematic for others, partly because we take the axiom too literally and too rigidly. We fear ever breaking out of our own immediate, personal experiences, so we wind up becoming what Nazaryan refers to in his interview as the “great American narcissist.” (He borrows the term from David Foster Wallace and credits Wallace with it in both the interview and his editorial at Salon.com.) “I talk about Juvela Heery(ph) and Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen — I don’t see big political, social engagement in their works. I see narrow concerns,” Nazaryan said on air. “I think the vast majority of writers are almost afraid of imagination.” And in his editorial, he writes about how this obsession with self and ego, and this fear of imagination, get perpetuated in writing programs: “Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior.”
He notes how William Styron dared to write in the voice of a black slave in The Confessions of Nat Turner, or how John Steinbeck wrestled with large-scale cultural criticism in The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, we get Updike needling away at his own sexual obsessions over the course of four Rabbit novels, or Joyce Carol Oates indulging in whatever writing exercise happens to catch her fancy in a given year, or Colson Whitehead‘s novel Sag Harbor, “little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race,” in Nazaryan’s estimation.
Now, I should say that I quite like Updike’s Rabbit novels, and I heard Colson Whitehead on NPR’s Fresh Air a week or so ago and found him to be intelligent and interesting and his novel Sag Harbor sounds pretty damn good. I might like to read it. And when Nazaryan turns, in his editorial, toward a juxtaposition of what he seems to think are the “bigger” concerns of great literature compared with what he dismisses as the “small” concerns of navel-gazing or ego-stroking American writers, I start to take issue with his position. I feel I can love the small as well as the great, and I think that our old axiom to write what you know is a good controlling tool to help prevent us from going too far in our literature, because there’s writing big, bold literature and then there’s just talking out your ass. And frankly, I feel that looking inside ourselves can often be bigger and scarier than trying to tackle the “big ideas.”
But Nazaryan is definitely onto something, and the point he makes best he made in his interview on NPR: Late in the interview, interviewer Guy Raz says, “[Y]ou say writers are encouraged to write from their perspective and to write what they know. But how should they sort of be thinking about writing differently? I mean, what would they write?” And Nazaryan replies, “Well, first of all, I think you have to have experience. Hemingway, of course, wrote from the viewpoint of many times his own self. But he’d done a lot of things. He’d been to war. He lived in Paris. If he’d just gone to college and then to a writing seminar and then moved to Brooklyn, I don’t think he could’ve written The Sun Also Rises.”
But it’s a good point. Hemingway — who did not originate the phrase “write what you know” but gets credited with it a lot and was fond of the idea — wrote exclusively from his own experience, and he won a Nobel Prize for writing what he knew. (In his editorial, Nazaryan claims that “between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male,” but he’s wrong: Hemingway won in 1954.) But one reason Hemingway’s experience managed to be more than self-indulgent narcissism (though it was certainly an ego trip) is that Hemingway experienced a lot. Dude drove an ambulance in WWI, got wasted in Paris with Picasso and Fitzgerald and Stein, hung with the bullfighter crowd in Spain, served as a war correspondant during the Spanish Civil War, talked to (and possibly double-crossed!) the freaking KGB, for crying out loud!
In other words, rather than sit at home and write about his divorces or his alcoholism or his depression (which he could easily have done, because he was notorious for all three), he went out and found stuff worth writing about, and he lived it.
Which reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon from the 1930s, which was poking fun at Time magazine’s “faked” foreign reporting but which also seems to bear a message for writers about not only writing what we know but knowing what we write:
I’m a vegetarian and an animal lover. I’m not saying — as the cartoon seems to suggest — that you should go cook and eat a puppy. (Really: please don’t cook and eat any puppies!) And I’m not saying you should be like Hemingway and join a war, or blow all your money getting wasted in Paris, or spy for the Russians. And I’m not saying that all that would necessarily make for great literature — Hunter S. Thompson was a very Hemingway-esque guy and his contribution to American letters is beyond measure, but he never won a Nobel Prize (maybe because the committee worried what he’d spend the prize money on).
But you should dare to experience your own life — you should dare to live your own life.
And perhaps that’s the way to reconcile the bold, grand literature that Nazaryan (and the Nobel committee) wants with the self-reflective literature we college-educated Americans have all been trained to write: We should be fully present in our own lives, and we should be fully honest about what we have — and haven’t — experienced.