Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature is being announced this morning. But even before we know the winner, the prize has drawn attention for the wrong reasons. An official in the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, caused a furor last week when he described American literature as isolated and insular, and therefore unqualified for literature's most prestigious award. NPR's Neda Ulaby spoke with a few leading American authors to get their reactions.

NEDA ULABY: Playwright Edward Albee is 88 years old. As a result, the guy who wrote "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" and "Zoo Story" has gained a sort of cranky perspective.

Mr. EDWARD ALBEE (Playwright): All prizes are peculiar. There's politics in everything, and some judges just don't know what they're doing.

ULABY: Albee points to a long line of Nobel judges who've managed to overlook many of the 20th century's greatest writers.

Mr. ALBEE: Like Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and W.H. Auden.

Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist): You could create a pretty good award just out of those.

ULABY: Novelist Richard Russo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls," was baffled when the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary announced that, quote, "Europe is still the center of the literary world, and not the United States."

Mr. RUSSO: It was just more curious than anything else. I thought, this idea of suggesting that literature is in a physical place, that just doesn't make any sense to me at all.

ULABY: Nor did it make sense to Russo when Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl charged that the U.S. does not participate in the big dialogue of literature.

Mr. RUSSO: I think that the book itself is the dialogue. If I or any other writer writes a great book, then that book is our contribution to the dialogue.

ULABY: Some American writers were infuriated by Engdahl's statement. At least one responded with language unrepeatable on public radio. An essayist for the online magazine Slate proposed the U.S. secede from what he called the sham the Nobel Prize for Literature has become.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: That's author Francine Prose.

Ms. FRANCINE PROSE (Author; President, PEN American Center): Actually, I'd prefer to retain our ties with the international community, as tenuous as they might be.

ULABY: Prose serves as president of the PEN American Center which champions writers' rights around the world. Because three of the last four Nobel literature winners have been outspoken critics of the U.S. and its foreign policy, some people have accused the Swedish Academy of favoring anti-American writers. Prose is not so sure.

Ms. PROSE: I don't know. With any prize, any prize, it goes through phases. And it seems as if for a certain number of years they're rewarding certain kinds of books. But the range is, and always has been, really quite enormous.

ULABY: Still, Prose says that Nobel judge Horace Engdahl had a point when he criticized U.S. publishers for not promoting more literature in translation. Novelist Junot Diaz, who won this year's literature Pulitzer, says something good could actually come out of this controversy.

Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist): I mean, if this encourages the average American to read one more book in translation, if only to spite the kind of sneering Eurocentric elitism of this one individual, that's not a bad thing.

ULABY: Nor would it be so bad, Diaz says, if it incited U.S. publishers to translate more work from other parts of the world. He has a tip for them, the young Mexican writer Martin Solares, whose brilliant work, Diaz says, is mostly unavailable in English, or Swedish. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: