Wednesday, October 1, 2008
STOCKHOLM -- Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize this month: 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's 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 said yesterday. "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."
His comments were met with fierce reactions from literary officials across the Atlantic. "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.
"And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola."
Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation that administers the National Book Awards, said he wanted to send Engdahl a reading list of U.S. literature. "Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream," he said. "One way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has re-created the idea of American literature."
The most recent American to win the award was Toni Morrison in 1993. Other American winners include Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
The academy often picks obscure writers and hardly ever selects best-selling authors. It regularly faces accusations of snobbery, political bias and even poor taste. 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.