Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary for the Swedish Academy and top jury member for the Nobel Prize, sent ripples through the literary community yesterday when he criticized American writers in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that U.S. authors are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," and that the quality of their work suffers as a result.
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," Engdahl said. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."
Engdahl’s comments, including a remark that Europe remains "the center of the literary world," have ignited sharp responses from literary heavyweights in defense of American writing.
"Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age," said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, who offered to send Engdahl a reading list.
"You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures," said New Yorker editor David Remnick.
Engdahl told the Guardian today that his remarks were misunderstood, noting that the Nobel Prize selection process does not pit nations against one another, but considers the work of individual authors without regard to country of origin. He asserted that his or anyone else’s views of American literature have no bearing on who will receive the honor.
Toni Morrison was the last American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, and some pundits speculate that Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates are among the potential recipients this year. The announcement of the 2008 winner will be made on December 10.