Engdahl is a member of the Swedish Academy (the folks who give out the Nobel Prizes) and this month, in an interview with French paper La Croix, he lamented that literature in the West is suffering because writers have become too “professionalized.”
Formerly, he opines, writers used to work as cab drivers, as secretaries, as waiters for a living. The work was difficult, but it fed their literary growth. Now, though, with grants and financial support, writers only have to write which, in Engdahl’s estimation, “cuts the writer off from society and creates an unhealthy link with institutions.”
This, from a guy who’s been a member of such an “institution” (i.e., the Swedish Academy) for nearly two decades, and probably hasn’t driven a taxi or waited tables in his life (he was a secretary for ten years…for the Swedish Academy. A-hem.)
Obviously, Engdahl believes that the only source for “litrachur” in the West is the legions of authors who are living the high-life on their NEA grants and their MacArthur fellowships. Those of us who work for a living outside our writing (i.e., the vast majority of us) are incapable of writing anything lofty enough to catch the notice of anyone of import.
For a laugh, though, try to guess just where Engdahl looks for literature in the East and in Africa. That’s right; he looks among those who work for a living outside their writing (though he worries about the future of their literary stars, too, hoping that the quality of work :will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernization of these authors.”
I don’t disagree with everything Engdahl says–I see, as he does, a rise in the “faux-transgressive” (my phrase, not his) in Western literature–but by and large, his words really show the exclusionist attitude of the literary world. There’s literature, and then there’s just writing. And nothing written for a paycheck can be worth a literary dime.
I’d say something snarky here, just to vent my spleen, but The Observer’s associate editor, Robert McCrum, put it all too well:
“At face value, these comments are an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic. I’m not sure that the author’s garret is the guarantor of excellence.”
PS. For an English writeup on the topic, see The Guardian’s article here.