I love it when the Nobel Prize for Literature goes, as this year, to a writer whose name is unfamiliar to me. I'm woefully ignorant of French literature in general, and contemporary French literature in particular, and so is not a byline I'd noticed before. Given how few of his books are currently available in English translation, though, I expect I'm not alone in my ignorance.
This is one of the great values of the Nobel for American readers, and perhaps one of the only things that makes it, unlike most other awards, culturally valuable. Its profile is high enough that, in the right circumstances, it can propel writers into view who would otherwise remain at best only barely visible.
Of course, this is not mainly what it does. As often as not, the Nobel goes to writers who are already prominent. This is much less interesting, although I will admit to celebrating when it goes to writers who are or have been particularly meaningful in my reading life, which has been true of some of the recent awards (Lessing, Pinter, Coetzee). I, too, could make a list, though, of recipients whose work does not interest me or, beyond that, seems undeserving of such accolades (Toni Morrison, William Golding, John Steinbeck, Winston Churchill, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis -- interestingly, all writers writing in English, perhaps because I am most confident of my judgment there).
But then there are writers such as Gao Xingjian and Jose Saramago whose work I discovered because of the new prominence the Nobel gave them, and those are discoveries I treasure. (Someone like Elfriede Jelinek is a more problematic case, someone whose work I sampled and found interesting, but I'm wary of the difficulties and inadequacies of the translation of her work into English.)
Before the announcement of the award, all the news in the lit'ry world was about the chair of the prize committee's comments that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." He also made some comments about Europe being the center of all literature or somesuch, and that seems to me to be too much of an us-versus-the-world mentality, but I don't know why there were so many knee-jerk negative reactions from U.S. critics (well responded to by The Literary Saloon) to the comment about insularity and isolation. Do we really need to further promote the insidious idea of American exceptionalism? "We're not isolated and insular, we're the best!" Come on. We don't translate nearly enough, and there are many conversations about literature going on in the world that we are utterly oblivious to. Horace Engdahl may have painted with too broad a brush, but we shouldn't deny the fact that it takes an awful lot of work and luck to get American readers interested in writers from outside our borders.
The Nobel is sometimes a good force against that insularity and isolation, because it plays well with our celebrity culture. It can cause American companies to translate and publish previously unavailable work, and cause American readers to buy the work in enough quantity to keep such efforts going. I wish the Nobel had the power to do that for dozens of writers each year, not just one.