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Making book on the winner of Nobel Prize for literature is tough

October 11, 2006|From the Associated Press

STOCKHOLM — Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jean-Paul Sartre were already well-known writers when they won the Nobel Prize in literature.

But since the first prize in 1901, the 18-member Swedish Academy has never been shy about awarding writers whose body of work was little-known or outright obscure to most readers.

As the fiercely private academy prepares to announce this year's winner on Thursday, it must also get ready to face the traditional accusations of snobbery, political bias and even poor taste.

Robert McCrum, literary editor of British newspaper the Observer and a co-author of "The Story of English," described the academy's record of picking winners as "a mixed bag."

"Some are unknown and some are very well known. Some are great, some are not so great," he said.

This year's winner will undoubtedly have his or her name catapulted onto the global stage, see out-of-print works returned to circulation and a sales boost. The winner will also receive a $1.4-million check, a gold medal and diploma, and an invitation to a Stockholm banquet on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of prize founder Alfred Nobel.

Critics say the academy's choice is often as hard to grasp as its complex prize citations.

In 2004, Austrian Elfriede Jelinek won the prize for what the academy said was her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power."

Critics said her work, known for its frank descriptions of sexuality, pathos and conflict between men and women, was distasteful and unfit for a Nobel. A year later, Knut Ahnlund resigned from the academy, saying that awarding Jelinek had irreparably damaged the 220-year-old academy's integrity.

The academy's 18 members are appointed for life. Two of them, Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten, left in 1989 in protest against the academy's failure to support Salman Rushdie after the fatwa, or religious decree, issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Two more joined the group this year, replacing two members who died in May.

Last year's winner was British playwright Harold Pinter, a vociferous critic of U.S. foreign policy. That award triggered accusations that the academy was anti-American, left-leaning and politically motivated.

Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, would have none of it.

"Any idiot can say that Pinter was rewarded for his criticism of the USA, but how many can write a competent assessment about his efforts as a dramatist?" Engdahl said Tuesday. "All talk of political motives in our rewards is nonsense."

A political bias may be hard to prove, but there is no doubt the academy favors lesser-known writers to international bestsellers. Few outside literary circles had heard of China's Gao Xingjian, Poland's Wislawa Szymborska or Kenzaburo Oe of Japan.

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