October 1, 2008
Nobel Juror: U.S. Can’t Compete in Literature
By Malin Rising; Hillel Italie
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.
Counters the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation: "Put him in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list."
As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it is no coincidence that most winners are European.
"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He said the 16-member award jury has not selected this year's winner, and dropped no hints about who was on the short list.
Speaking generally about American literature, he said U.S. writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture ."
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
His comments were met with fierce reactions .
"You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.
Said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation that administers the National Book Awards:
"Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age," he said.
Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinct European flavor. Nine of the subsequent laureates were Europeans, including last year's winner, Doris Lessing of Britain. Of the other four, one was from Turkey and the others from South Africa, China and Trinidad. All had strong ties to Europe.
The Nobel Prize announcements start next week with the medicine award on Monday, followed by physics, chemistry, peace and economics. Next Thursday is a possible date for the literature prize, but the Swedish Academy by tradition only gives the date two days before.
Originally published by Malin Rising and Hillel Italie Associated Press .
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