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Are US writers unworthy of the Nobel Prize?

By / October 2, 2008



Ouch! You could almost feel the hurt. An American writer is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel judge and permanent secretary Horace Engdahl told the Associated Press in an interview.

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"The US is too isolated, too insular," the Swedish historian and critic said. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.

"You can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world, not the United States," he added.

It didn't take long for America's book world to spring to the defense. "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 magazine.

Remnick cited Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, along with "many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English." Not one of "these poor souls, old or young," Remnick said, "seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola."

"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," said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of US National Book Foundation.

Even an unnamed "senior French publishing executive" came to the defense of the US in an interview with the Independent – although rather less vigorously. Engdahl was "partly right but also fundamentally wrong," he said, adding that "not all American contemporary literature is parochial or ignorant.... there are also excellent modern American authors."

"Put [Engdahl] in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list," suggested Augenbraum. Of course, there have been a number of US writers who have been awarded the prize over the years, although some argue that that number is much smaller than it should be.

One-hundred-and-four writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901. Of those 104, there have been 10 US winners, starting with Sinclair Lewis in 1930. Most recently, Toni Morrison received the prize in 1993.

This year, Nobel Prizes for physiology, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics will all be announced in October. According to tradition, however, the Swedish Academy will set the date for its announcement of the Nobel Prize in literature later.

Each Nobel Prize includes a $1.3 million purse, a gold medal and a diploma. The awards are handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

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