The dangers of treating literary fiction at par with commercial fiction: Horace Engdahl


“We talk in the same way about everything which is published, and literary criticism is poorer for it,” said Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl. “This revolution has marginalised proper literature, which has not got worse, but which has seen its status change. Before, there were mountains and lowlands. Today, the outlook is that of an archipelago, where each island represents a genre … with everything coexisting without a hierarchy or centre”: The Guardian

Horace Engdahl swedish academy nobel prize literature judgeWestern literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes, according to a series of blistering comments from Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl, speaking shortly before the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is awarded.

In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

Engdahl, who together with his fellow members of the 18-strong academy is preparing to select the winner of this year’s Nobel literature award, and announce the choice on Thursday, 9 October, said it was on “our western side that there is a problem, because when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again”.

“I hope the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors,” he added later in his interview with Sabine Audrerie.

Literature as commodity

Literary criticism, too, came in for a mauling from the Nobel judge, who was concerned about how the lines between literature, and “literature which has arisen as a commodity”, have been erased. “We talk in the same way about everything which is published, and literary criticism is poorer for it,” he said. “This revolution has marginalised proper literature, which has not got worse, but which has seen its status change. Before, there were mountains and lowlands. Today, the outlook is that of an archipelago, where each island represents a genre … with everything coexisting without a hierarchy or centre.”

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