Is American Fiction Too Provincial?

While most American fiction focuses on national concerns, its high-end, prize-winning fiction looks around the globe. Why the divide?

Autumn brings the peak of the literary prize season: winners of the Booker, the National Book Award, the Women’s Prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Nobel will all be announced by mid-November. American authors and books will be contenders for almost every award, large and small, for which they are eligible. That makes this an auspicious moment to revisit two persistent questions about American literature: Is it really a key part of the global literary system? And is the answer to that question the same for its “serious” and its mainstream forms? We can see the doubts behind those questions most clearly in a recent literary controversy, one that seems to have grown at once more and less relevant in the 12 years since it took place.

Readers with longish memories and a taste for the absurd will recall the 2008 incident with Horace Engdahl, who was then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and is now a central figure in the Academy’s recent #MeToo and corruption scandals that canceled the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the run-up to the 2008 award announcement, Engdahl explained that American authors were not competitive for the prize, because they were “too isolated, too insular” and didn’t “participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

The results of this claim were a good deal of hand-wringing among American authors and readers, some sympathetic head-nodding both here and abroad, and no noticeable change in the prize’s national distribution. (There have been two American laureates since 1978: Toni Morrison in 1993 and Bob Dylan in 2016.)1 On its own, the incident isn’t worth much attention today; it represented a passing amalgam of ignorance, publicity seeking, and the combination of arrogance and fallibility that James English diagnosed in these pages in his coverage of the Academy’s recent (and more serious) woes.

But the idea that American literature could be or should be (or perhaps already was) more deeply intertwined with the world outside the United States wasn’t unique to Engdahl. Scholars have repeatedly argued that what we call American literature has been bound up with other literary traditions (and markets) for centuries, and that contemporary US fiction has been especially explicit in its treatment of the world.

Domestic readers, meanwhile, have always made successes of at least some American-authored books set outside the US, of novels by writers who immigrated to the States, and of imported fiction largely divorced from American culture. Yet the nagging sense that American literature is at least a little provincial, a little self-absorbed in comparison to other nations—that Engdahl was a broken clock enjoying one of its twice-daily minutes of accuracy—has remained hard to escape.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to say what is the normal or correct amount of national introspection. Danish authors, one presumes, write about Denmark more often and more deeply than do others. We don’t generally consider this a problem. And the United States naturally looms large in the imagination of writers around the globe, as do other wealthy, influential nations. So, we should expect differences from country to country and probably some overrepresentation of the United States across the board, especially in recent decades.

But just as important to our sense of American exceptionalism are the limits of readership. When arguments about literary solipsism depend on a few books to stand in for the whole of a national literature, it’s easy to stumble into (or to create) the impression that one culture differs radically from another in its degree of self-interest.

There are a few ways one might gain a wider view of national differences. Translations could be a useful proxy for readers’ and publishers’ international attention, as could sales figures (if they were widely available). One could focus on the authors or the content of prizewinning or best-selling books, on the assumption that these qualities are especially indicative of national tastes. Or, given the right resources, we could ask: What places do the books of different nations describe?

We should keep in mind the divergence between prize culture and mainstream literature when we think about what we mean by American fiction.

This last option, a broad-based catalog of literary geography, is probably the most direct way to answer the question of overall American literary self-interest. To pursue it, our group assembled collections of books by American and British authors, and of books published in the United States and in Great Britain (regardless of their authors’ nationalities), that were released between 1850 and 2009. These collections are large, totaling more than 150,000 volumes. Their collective size gives us the chance to examine changes in literary geography at a scale that we might call industrial rather than artisanal. But we also created smaller collections of best sellers, prizewinners, and other more-or-less prestigious volumes that dominate readers’ sense of the literary field.

We then used computers to identify the named locations in each book and to match those locations with detailed geographic information. The resulting data allowed us to measure, for each book and collection, the fraction of its attention devoted to places inside and outside its nation of origin. The results were illuminating. And they provide a good deal of support to both sides of the Engdahl debate. As we’ll see in a moment, American authors have indeed favored domestic locations for more than a century, to a much greater extent and with more consistency than did British authors. But a small slice of high-status American fiction, the kind that’s routinely in contention for major awards, has behaved differently in recent decades, growing more international since the end of World War II. Above all, we should keep in mind this divergence between prize culture and mainstream literature when we think about what we mean by American fiction.

First, consider nationality as a function of authorship. That is, call a book American if its author identifies as American and British if its author is British (set aside, for the moment, the historically rather small number of ambiguous cases).

Here, the results are remarkably clear: American authors use (and always have used) American locations far more frequently than their British peers use British places (figure 1).

Figure 1. Attention to location by author nationality. Colors represent distinct collections. Markers are sized by the number of books in each collection per year

As the blue points show, American authors devoted a bit more than 60 percent of their collective attention to locations in the United States, with relatively little variation across the years. British authors (shown in red) rarely devoted more than 40 percent of their attention to locations in the UK.

What’s especially striking is the evolution of British domestic attention, which isn’t reflected at all in the American data: where British authors widened their geographic range over time, American authors did not. In fact, American literature in 2000 was about as domestically focused as it had been in 1950, in 1900, and in 1850. If one is inclined to see American literature as comparatively isolated or insular, this result will likely strengthen that belief.

But national literature isn’t only a matter of authorship. Readers and publishers matter, too.

Maybe nations adjust their attention by varying the composition of what they consume rather than what their authors produce? What do the data show if we compare books that were published in the US to those published in the UK, and American best sellers to British best sellers (figure 2)?

Figure 2. Attention to location by nation of publication or sales status

In short, yes, the situation looks a bit different on the consumption side, at least in the US. True, best sellers are similar to the author-based results in both countries (the apparent dip in domestic attention among US best sellers after the Second World War is mostly a result of a small and highly variable dataset). And novels published in Britain were only very slightly more international in aggregate than were British-authored books.

But US-published books changed much more over time than did US-authored ones. We are limited in this case to data derived from library records, so it’s impossible to say if the late-19th-century fall in domestic attention and the subsequent rise across much of the 20th century was reflected across the whole of the US publishing industry. Still, it certainly appears that the books available to US readers contained significantly more international content at the turn of the 20th century than they did at the turn of the 21st.

But the fact that 10s of thousands of American books were comparatively outward-looking a century ago, only to turn inward over time, doesn’t line up very well with the sense among readers of serious American fiction that US novels have become more international in recent decades. Nor does it answer Engdahl’s charge, which was about recent literature and, really, about the smaller fraction of “serious” books that might “participate in the big dialogue of literature.” What gives?

Figure 3. Reviewed and prize-nominated books

The answer is pretty clearly visible in figure 3, which shows domestic attention over time in books that were nominated for major US literary awards and (in the years before the rise of contemporary prize culture) in books that were reviewed in high-status journals in the US and UK. While the British case before World War II resembles the other UK measures, the American case captures the intuition of many readers who were puzzled (or outraged) by Engdahl’s assessment.

American literary inwardness, on this measure and in these high-status volumes, rose in the first half of the twentieth century, then began to fall sharply around 1950. If the books one reads are those that made the shortlists for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and so on, it really does look like American literature has become steadily more international in its outlook for as long as most readers can recall.

Was Engdahl wrong when he claimed that contemporary American literature was irredeemably parochial? Of course. The charge itself is nonsensical: first, there cannot be a correct level of national introspection. And second: a nation that produces 10s of thousands of new novels every year will necessarily cover more ground, literal and figurative, than any critic can follow.

But there are three points that readers might take from a data-informed glance at American literary geography. For one, prizes really do matter (although not necessarily in the way you think). As awards season arrives, we would do well to remember that the books in contention for literary prizes are, at least in terms of their national attention, often unlike the larger run of American fiction.

We might remember, too, that the difference between the two categories—prize contenders and everything else—has grown over time. Readers’ sense of what American fiction is and what it does can be profoundly affected by the divergence between high- and low-status books. Prizes didn’t create this divergence, but they profit from it. This is because such divergence allows prizes (and us) to treat a manageably narrow range of books as if they were the whole of national or global literatures.


Who Cares about Literary Prizes?

By Alexander Manshel et al.

We would also do well to remember that fiction produced by American authors has been remarkably unchanging in its level of domestic regard for more than a century and a half. True, the details have changed (more California and Vietnam, less New England and France), but the overall domestic-international split appears to be almost totally impervious to historical evolution.

Finally, we should note that the stability of American literary self-regard does not imply that that level is somehow too high. Consistently, for more than 150 years, American authors have devoted almost 40 percent of their spatial attention to locations outside the US. Is that enough? Readers will have to answer for themselves, but it isn’t a small amount. If the Nobel once again escapes the grasp of an American novelist, it won’t be because US authors and readers have ignored the wider world.


This article was commissioned by Richard Jean Soicon

  1. This essay was completed before the announcement that American poet Louise Glück had won the 2020 Nobel.
Featured-image photograph by Christin Hume / Unsplash