A Literary Mantle

In a few days, 18 members of the Swedish Academy meet in Stockholm. They will select the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's huge. Their decision instantly shoves a writer before millions of readers.

Be it for a poet, playwright, novelist, or some combination of the three, the Nobel imprimatur means lasting fame. No 15 minutes here. Someone gets read and reread. Publishers, holding copyrights, dance in the streets with dollar signs in their eyes.

But for most people, the Nobel selection vaguely registers as a media event with a literary tag line, something people in Sweden do with all the money the guy who invented dynamite made and felt guilty about. Ottar Draugsvold's article (Page B3) explains why what goes on next week is significant beyond publishing.

William Faulkner in his 1949 Nobel acceptance speech stood on a literary mountaintop and spoke to the ages when he said, "Man will not merely endure: He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things."

Fortunately for Faulkner, he missed the current American phenomenon of publishing minor, often narcissistic, memoirs. They're turning up everywhere, as Sara Terry's article makes clear (Page B5). These memoirists are decidedly not the stuff of Nobel laureates.

For Ms. Terry, their value lies in cataloging how individuals try to get at their own unique story, however short they fall in telling it.

Since the first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in 1901, the cross-cultural award has taken on the aura of a literary mantle. In a world grown ever smaller and interconnected, "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props," as Faulkner said.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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