Controversy Embroils Nobel Literature Prize Even before the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature was announced Thursday morning, it was drawing attention — for the wrong reasons. Last week, a Nobel official seemed to nix the possibility of an American winner when he said, "Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States."
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Controversy Embroils Nobel Literature Prize

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Controversy Embroils Nobel Literature Prize

Controversy Embroils Nobel Literature Prize

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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.

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