Even before the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature was announced Thursday morning, it was already drawing attention — for the wrong reasons. An official of the Swedish Academy — which awards the Nobel Prizes — caused a furor last week when he described American literature as isolated and insular, and therefore unqualified for literature's most prestigious award.
Playwright Edward Albee, whose credits include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Zoo Story, has gained a sort of cranky perspective when it comes to awards. "All prizes are peculiar," he says. "There's politics in everything, and some judges just don't know what they're doing."
Albee points to a long list of great 20th century writers who were passed over by the Nobel judges: Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and W.H. Auden.
Novelist Richard Russo says you could create a pretty good award out of just that list. Russo won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls. He was baffled when the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, told the Associated Press last month that "Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States."
Russo called the statement "more curious than anything else. This idea of suggesting that literature is in a physical place — that doesn't make sense to me at all." Nor did it make sense to Russo when Engdahl charged that the United States does not participate in the "big dialogue" of literature.
"I think the book itself is the dialogue," says Russo. "If I or any other writer writes a great book, then that book is our contribution to the dialogue."
Some American Writers Were Furious
At least one writer responded to Engdahl's statement with language unprintable here. An essayist for the online magazine Slate proposed that the U.S. secede from what he called "the sham the Nobel Prize for literature has become."
That makes author Francine Prose chuckle. "Actually, I'd prefer to retain our ties with the international community, as attenuated as it might be," she says.
Prose is president of the Pen American Center, which champions writers' rights around the world. Because three of the past 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.
"Any prize goes through phases," she says, "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."
Still, Prose says that 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 Pulitzer Prize in literature — says something good could actually come out of this controversy.
"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," he says.
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. His work, Diaz says, is brilliant, but mostly unavailable in English — or, in Swedish.