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The Nobel Literature Debate: Uncle Sam Has Bigger Problems

By Ulrich Baron

Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Prize committee doesn't think American authors are good enough for the world's top literary honor. His comments are laughable, but they will certainly draw more attention to the awards this year.

Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy, thinks US authors are overrated.
AP

Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy, thinks US authors are overrated.

For all the people who have incorrectly predicted for years that the next Noble Prize in literature would go to Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon or some other American, it's now come time to face reality. That's because Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, has revealed why American authors have no chance in Stockholm. In his opinion, American writers are "too insular," "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture" and too ignorant to write good books. And Engdahl claims to know the reason behind their narrow-mindedness, too: "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

The fact that a huge part of the "big dialogue" these days is significantly influenced by the works of Roth, Pynchon, Updike, DeLillo and Auster appears to bother him so much that he won't even pay any attention to it. Or could it be that the star of this literary critic and editor, who is well-known in Sweden, is waning, and he's trying to draw attention to himself by pulling the lion by the tail?

In response, Harold Augenbraum, the director of the National Book Foundation in the United States, has announced his plans to send Engdahl a recommended-reading list of works by American authors. So, there is still a chance for an amicable settlement of the issue.

But the fact remains that Engdahl's collection of somewhat pompous works published in 1999 under the title "Meteors" never quite made it to the best-seller list of the New York Times. After one well-meaning critic called the work "airy," could the sledge hammer now be falling? The man who translated Kleist and Schlegel into Swedish might just have a personal reason for resenting the country full of notorious best-selling authors and Nobel Prize candidates for such disrespect. But he's not really right to do so.

In retrospect, the fact that Europe continues to be the center of the literary universe, as Engdahl claims, might just have something to do with the diversity of traditions here. But to think that that is the reason why the majority of Nobel Prize winners in literature are European is somewhat skewed logic. In the end, Europe's multitude of countries also have many more chances than the US, a land of many peoples whose literary tradition combines those absorbed from places, both within and outside of Europe, into a new form of world literature.

American authors, such as Faulkner and Hemingway, had a major influence on European literature after World War II. And even the famous crime novels of Sweden have Anglo-American roots. And American authors like David Guterson and Annie Proulx have actually managed to capture the rest of the world's imagination with stories of American rednecks living along the Pacific Northwest coast or on "Brokeback Mountain."

For the last decade and a half, the Nobel Prize in literature has eluded the Americans. Since Toni Morrison became the last American author to win it (in 1993), people haven't been taking the prize as seriously anymore. By selecting exotic token choices and veteran compromise candidates, all the selection committee has succeeded in doing is to put literature editors under a lot of pressure to find anyone who knows of or can even remember the winner after the judgments have been announced in Sweden.

Mention the names Harold Pinter or Dario Fo, and people will probably ask if they're still around. Mention Doris Lessing, and they'll wonder whether she's already won it.

Mention Gao Xingjian, and the response will be: "Who's that? Has he written something?"

So much is printed and so many phone calls are made in such a short amount of time to get the announcement from Stockholm into the papers and onto television and radio programs. But two days later, the news has faded into obscurity.

Time and again, the decisions of the Nobel Prize committee have fallen on unfertile soil, which has already been paved over by new releases and book-fair favorites. And when there aren't any new works from the winners or when he or she disappears out of public view, then the Nobel Prize effect goes "poof," leaving no traces worth mentioning in the book trade.

Horace Engdahl's provocation does succeed in making the whole issue a bit more exciting. If the prize doesn't go to either an American or one of the favorites in the second week of October, it would be a surprise that would be doubly honored by newspaper columnists. But if a Comorian lyric poet takes the prize, people will assume that Engdahl was just expressing the opinion of the entire Nobel Prize committee.

But the truth is that, as always, Horace Engdahl has merely stirred up a tempest in a teapot. Uncle Sam has other things to worry about at the moment, and American authors will survive even without the Nobel Prize. And that might exactly turn out to be the worst possible response because the public esteem for a prize has much more to do with its winners than with the opinion of a secretary on the committee.

This time around, the literature business might look to Stockholm with a little more excitement -- before going back to taking care of their trade-fair hangovers.

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