The anti-American on the Nobel Lit com

I would be surprised if this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature goes to any English language writer, for Doris Lessing won the award last year and English language writers have been getting the award every alternate year since 2001 when Naipaul was the winner.

But no American writer has won the Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993. Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and Don De Lillo are tipped among the contenders by bookmakers Ladbrokes but the favourite is the Italian Claudio Magris followed by the Syrian Adonis.

Now it turns out there’s an anti-American bias in the jury.

Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the jury that awards the Nobel Prize for literature, said in an interview with the Associated Press:

“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States… The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

Lord, love a duck, this man is living in a time warp! No offence to the Europeans but they are at a disadvantage because English is the global language. How many European writers are internationally known since Camus, Sartre, Kafka and Gunter Grass?

I half suspect the guy was pulling a publicity stunt. Let’s face it, the Nobel Prize doesn’t sell books like the Booker Prize for the simple reason it’s sometimes awarded to authors rarely translated into English. Look at the list of winners for the last 10 years and you will see not every one of them is widely known:

2007 – Doris Lessing
2006 – Orhan Pamuk
2005 – Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 – J. M. Coetzee
2002 – Imre Kertész
2001 – V. S. Naipaul
2000 – Gao Xingjian
1999 – Günter Grass
1998 – Jose Saramago

So what better way to get attention than making anti-American sounds that are bound to be picked up by the English language press and reported from Canada to New Zealand. I still recall the buzz when the hugely talented Pinter won the Nobel and sounded off against the Iraq war.

Interestingly, three of the four English language authors honoured in the last 10 years have an African connection — Coetzee is a South African, Lessing Rhodesian-born, and Naipaul has visited and written about Africa — and three are British nationals: Pinter, Lessing and Naipaul.

Let’s face it, English, Spanish and French language enjoy the advantage of an international audience. So if the Nobel Prize selection committee chooses to honour writers in other languages to level the field, that’s all right.

But please don’t say the US is too isolated, too insular! American universities and institutions have been welcoming foreign writers from the time of Auden and Dylan Thomas, if not longer.

OK, Alexander Solzhenitsyn didn’t like America, Naipaul had a tough time that he wrote about in The Enigma of Arrival, but apart from France, which other country can boast of attracting more famous writers?

I wonder why, if Doris Lessing, Pinter and Coetzee can win the Nobel Prize, it can’t go to John Updike or Salman Rushdie. Now my bias is showing!

Here are comments from the Guardian, the Telegraph and Slate.

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