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Eyes on the prize

Critics of the decreasingly influential literature award charge that politics trumps great writing

October 01, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds writes about books for The Times.

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There they are in all their glory, this year's contenders for the world's most coveted writing award: Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (3-1 odds), Syrian poet Adonis (4-1), Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (5-1), Joyce Carol Oates (6-1), followed (ouch) by Philip Roth (10-1) and down into the nether regions of Nobel hopefuls, a list that veers closer to the sublime -- South Korean poet Ko Un, Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer, novelists Milan Kundera and Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Julian Barnes, Paul Auster and, last but not least, Bob Dylan at 500-1 -- than the ridiculous.

The winner will be named on an unspecified date not long after all the other Nobel categories are announced beginning this week. And of this you can be sure: There will be grousing. The general consensus over the last few years seems to be that the Nobel Prize in literature has become, as Roger Straus, co-founder of Farrar, Straus and Giroux once claimed, a "joke," or as Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, has said more diplomatically, a "great mystery." It's been a difficult decade for the prize-to-end-all-prizes (though the charm of the 10 million Swedish kronor -- or close to $1.4 million -- remains indisputable).

Last year, London literary critic Robert McCrum bemoaned the Nobel's loss of innocence. The 1997 selection of Italian communist anarchist playwright Dario Fo, he wrote, caused "near universal dismay," and the 2000 award to Chinese novelist, playwright and poet Gao Xingjian mere "bafflement." The 2004 choice of Elfriede Jelinek, the belligerently unreadable Austrian feminist, was even more controversial, and caused Knut Ahnlund, one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy (whose members serve for life) to walk. "Degradation, humiliation, desecration and self-disgust, sadism and masochism are the main themes of Elfriede Jelinek's work," he wrote in the conservative paper Svenska Dagblat. "All other aspects of human life are left out."

Ahnlund accused Horace Engdahl, who has been permanent secretary of the committee since 1999, of "destroying the moral nerve of the nation." The New Criterion magazine chimed in with a conservative attack, calling the selection of Jelinek "a new low" and, while it was at it, saying Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Prize served, sniff, only to "cheapen" the prize.

Engdahl, a mere schoolboy at 57 compared with some of his colleagues on the committee, enjoys a kind of notoriety in Swedish literary circles that he often refers to as hurtful. Why do they hate him so? While Ahnlund likes a good human story, Engdahl is a post-structuralist who believes in things like "textual analysis." In his speech at the presentation of the Nobel to Jelinek, he quoted Hegel (never popular at parties): "Woman is society's irony."

"If literature is a force that leads to nothing," Engdahl pressed on, addressing Jelinek, "you are, in our day, one of its truest representatives." (Thunderous applause.)

Engdahl has said that he wants to broaden the scope of the prize, "enlarge the mandate"; that it should "develop as literature develops." Some prize-watchers take this to mean a larger opening for journalists and philosophers (like Bertrand Russell, who won in 1950, or Winston Churchill, who won in 1953, or journalist Ryszard "5-1" Kapuscinski).

But what does it all mean? Where is Derrida when you need him? When Alfred Nobel, who died at 63 in 1896, made provision for the prizes in his 1895 will, the language delineating criteria for the literary prize was, well, obscure. The prize, he said, should go "to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." Hmmm. But then this was a guy who, just a few lines down, wrote that it was his "express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium."

Today, the overriding question is how much do the writer's politics factor into the nomination and award? Is the prize for literature or for politics? (It's a dessert topping! No, it's a floor wax!) "It's a literary prize," McCrum insists, "not a platform for sending political messages."

But the people at the New Criterion certainly don't think that it's being treated that way. More and more, they say, the prize "has gone to a person who has the correct sex, geographical address, ethnic origin and political profile -- 'correct' being determined by the commissars at the Swedish Academy."

Swedish literary critic Mats Gellerfelt, quoted in a long New Yorker article on the prize in 1999, agreed: "The ideal candidate for the Nobel Prize today," he said, "would be a lesbian from Asia."

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