Feature

Are American writers too insular to win the Nobel Prize?

Why the award's jury head thinks Europe's writers are better than ours

“Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week,” said Malin Rising and Hillel Italie in the Associated Press. Horace Engdahl, the head of the award jury in Sweden, recently said that the U.S. is “too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.” Needless to say, “his comments were met with fierce reactions from literary officials across the Atlantic.”

These days, said Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune, America seems to be viewed by the rest of the world as “the loony has-been.” But is it fair to say “our literature is as subprime as our mortgages?” No. “A good half-dozen American authors—including Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and John Updike”—are all worthy contenders for the Nobel Prize.

But Engdahl was right to say “our literary writers should be translated more,” said Dana Goldstein in The American Prospect online. The French government, for instance, spends “over $13 million annually” on “translating its writers and promoting their work abroad,” while the U.S. spends “only $200,000 for such projects.” Maybe if more people abroad could read our authors, perceptions would change.

Or maybe Engdahl is just bitter over the fact that he’s never “had a book published here,” said Mediabistro. Either way, who cares about the Nobel Prize. Looking back at the Americans who've won, “from Sinclair Lewis in 1930 to Toni Morrison in 1993,” they seemed to “already sell strongly by the time” Nobel jurors “recognized their greatness.”

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