Bright Light, Dim City

As a literature professor with a special interest in prizes and awards, I was delighted to find myself, one evening last June, drinking champagne and grazing the buffet at a literary banquet in the Blue Hall of Stadshuset, Stockholm’s City Hall building.  This, after all, is the very room where the dinner for Nobel Prize laureates is held; on December 10, beneath the 100-foot-high ceiling of this magnificent redbrick reception space (the planned blue paint was never applied), French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio will be feted, a million Euros richer and sporting a gold medal over his dinner jacket. 

My occasion was less momentous, an initiative called the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress, which assembled some 600 literati for lectures and discussions about literature, literacy, and human rights.  His Majesty the King of Sweden was not on hand for our banquet, and, as WALTIC President Mats Söderlund noted in his welcoming remarks, we would not be afforded quite the same standard of catering as the Nobel guests.  (No sign of the special Nobel silverware, which distinguished guests are perennially accused of pilfering.)  But the International Congress was no small affair, and its use of the Nobel venue was entirely fitting.  Notwithstanding its stated mission – “to increase literacy, safeguard freedom of speech, and strengthen authors’ rights” – WALTIC was essentially a grand staging of Stockholm’s claim to centrality in the literary world. 

Recommended Reading

Coming to Stockholm straight from an extended stay in London, I could not help feeling that the foundations of this claim looked a little thin.  To be sure, Stockholm is a city of considerable charm, especially in the warmth of summer when its network of bridges, bike paths, and cobbled lanes makes for a pedestrian’s paradise.  No thick crowds to fight through, as one must on almost any day on any artery in London.  But by the same token, practically no Africans or Caribbeans share the streets, and no South or East Asians; London’s cacophony of foreign tongues is absent.  Even the recent influx of Iraqi refugees has not mixed much Muslim garb or Arabic signage into Stockholm’s central neighborhoods.  If London is a frenetic multicultural crossroads in which the English themselves are thoroughly dissipated, Stockholm feels more like a village square where practically everyone is a Swede. And while the city has a goodly number of book shops and theaters, several important universities, and an assortment of other cultural gathering points, its cultural density does not come close to the 24/7 clamor of London’s signings, openings, festivals, and ticket queues.

Surely the real capitals of the literary world are Paris, London, and New York.  Paris is the great center of literary exchange and translation, the place where almost any writer working in a minor language stands the best chance of being discovered by western readers and critics.  London is the primary hub of literary culture in the English-speaking world, the first city of literary journalism, and the inescapable center of gravity for postcolonial literature.  And New York is the first city of the world’s dominant academic system, a magnet for internationally established writers and intellectuals, and core of the global book-publishing industry. 

So how can we take seriously Stockholm’s claim to stand at the true vortex of world literature?  What to make of Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, who during the run-up to the Nobel announcement proclaimed the USA a literary backwater, “too isolated, too insular [. . . to] participate in the big dialogue of literature”?  I scarcely felt, during the lectures and speeches at WALTIC, that I was party to a dialogue unheard back home.  On the contrary, a great many of the participants had spent time circulating in the American literary scene as lecturers, faculty members, resident writers, or book-touring authors.  If anything, WALTIC highlighted the insularity of Stockholm, which few of the speakers had visited before, and whose own authors and academics seemed starved for the high-minded literary symposia that we in the U.S. academy can take for granted.   

And yet, as I sat in the Blue Hall with my plate of grilled vegetables and Brie (hardy staples of the literary conference buffet) Stockholm’s claim held real force. Say what you like about the Nobel Prize, it is the literary world’s single most powerful symbolic weapon. To be a Laureate is to enjoy a uniquely global and enduring elevation of status.  A hundred years of mockery and condescension, from those who think themselves in a better position to judge great literature than the members of the Swedish Academy, has only strengthened the prize and bolstered the rewards it represents. The most strident efforts to deprecate it have only confirmed its pride of place in the “big dialogue of literature,” assisting it to widen the gap on all the thousands of other honors and awards that fill the coffers of literature’s symbolic economy.  Perhaps, as our money economy has been doing of late, the whole system will ultimately collapse inward upon itself, exposing this kind of wealth as a collective mirage.  But in the meantime, even the busiest conference rooms and salons of the literary world must remain in some sense peripheral to the Blue Hall of Stadshuset.