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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The Nobel isn't an open book

A little-known writer's selection revives the question: What is the purpose of the prize?

October 10, 2008|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

In fact, the two most prominent American Nobel candidates this year -- Roth and Joyce Carol Oates -- both seem unlikely laureates; Roth because he has actively lobbied for the award (which the committee is known to resist) and Oates because, to be frank, she's just not good enough.

There's more to the Nobel Prize, in other words, than filling out a resume, which is exactly as it ought to be.

Of course, the danger of giving this kind of prize to a writer few have heard of is that, like the uproar that preceded it, this too can diminish the award. It's what we might call the Sarah Palin effect: Does the out-of-nowhere candidate open up the playing field or simply reveal the process as inherently flawed?

This is not the first time such an issue has come up in regard to the Nobel. In 2005, Knut Ahnlund, a prize juror, resigned in protest over Jelinek's selection the year before, calling her work "whining, unenjoyable public pornography" that "has not only done irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art."

Strong stuff, but at least it stirred up a reaction. The real question about Le Clezio's Nobel Prize is whether anyone will care.

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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Ulin is book editor of The Times.

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