October 1, 2008 in Nation/World

Nobel literature head says U.S. writers can’t compete

By MALIN RISING and HILLEL ITALIE Associated Press
 

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.

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 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. Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates usually figure in speculation, but Engdahl wouldn’t comment on any names.

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“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 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.”

The most recent American to win the award was Toni Morrison in 1993. Other American winners include Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

As permanent secretary, Engdahl is a voting member of and spokesman for the secretive panel that selects the winners of what many consider the most prestigious award in literature.

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