A Top Five list that leaves much to be desired

So I was reading a review in the WSJ this morning about an incomplete Vladimir Nabokov novel that has been released posthumously, and probably should not have been.

And that got me to thinking about great writers who write in English even though it’s not their first language, and I thought it would be cool to draft a Top Five List of such writers. This would be challenging, and more highbrow than a “Top Five Side One Track Ones” list.

Trouble is, I can only think of two:

  1. Joseph Conrad, who as far as I’m concerned could occupy the whole list alone, even if you don’t go beyond Heart of Darkness. He packed meaning in and around English words in ways that native speakers never thought of. (Or perhaps I should say, “of which native speakers never thought.”)
  2. Vladimir Nabokov.

And I must admit I’m not too sure about Nabokov. People tell me he’s brilliant, but his “masterpiece” has always sounded kinda perv-y to me, kind of Roman Polanski, you might say (which suggests a Top Five Perv-y Directors Whose First Language is Not English, which would also come up short, I’m afraid). So I’ve never read it. A case of judging a book by its synopsis. I mean, I loved A Clockwork Orange despite its disgusting themes — partly because of its creative use of another language (Russian) melded with English slang to create a new language altogether, come to think of it — but I haven’t been interested enough to give Lolita a try.

Anyway, as I wondered who might be third, fourth and fifth on such a list (and maybe second, too, since I’m not sure about Nabokov), I learned that there is a whole publication devoted to such writers — a publication that even sponsors something called the Conrad-Nabokov Award (which provides a broad hint that maybe those two are in a class by themselves). Here is how it explains itself:

This is the third issue of Shipwrights, and perhaps it’s a good time to pause and reflect. This journal is an experiment, really. It may be the only international magazine specifically dedicated to publishing the work of “de-centered” (second-language English) authors. It is, thus, one representation of the linguistic effects of globalization. As the number of second-language speakers of English in the world continues to balloon, it’s interesting to consider a possible future day when we won’t even notice whether a writer in the English literature market is a native anglophone or not. After judging the Conrad-Nobakov Award, Ms. Burroway remarked, “It’s hard to believe that these authors are writing in English as a second language, for all of them have superior command of it.”

Bet you didn’t know that. Not that you needed to.

3 thoughts on “A Top Five list that leaves much to be desired

  1. Burl Burlingame

    English rules. As a spoken language. Why? Because it’s the only primarily language that doesn’t rely on inflection and sentence structure to be understood. That’s why it’s the language of air-traffic control world-wide.
    As for pervy directors, Polanski made me wonder about the English phrase “rearing a child.”

  2. Greg Flowers

    Ayn Rand, I would guess a large number of authors from India, particularly from the first part of the 20th century; what was V.S. Naipaul’s first language?

    Kazuo Ishiguro.

    That’s all I can do off of the top of my head.

    Trivia question: What now almost forgotten British author was largely responsible for teaching Conrad English?

    Ford Maddox Ford, whose “The Good Soldier” should not be forgotten.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Wow–that’s a challenge for Ms. Language-Person….

    I guess I don’t think in terms of top X lists. I think it’s more of a guy thing, maybe–categorize, catalog, rate, rank.My girlfriends don’t rate the best chickflick or favorite designer or best restaurant. We might list restaurants we like, in no particular order, say, more as information…

    I even have trouble giving stars on Netflix. I want to write a paragraph instead. or two.

    But you knew that.

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