Nobel Literature Prize – an American?

Most years the big questions before the announcement of the Nobel Prize in literature are whether it will go to a man or woman, poet or novelist.

But before Thursday’s 2008 award, the question on many minds is whether the winner will be an American.

Speculation has soared after committee member and permanent secretary Horace Engdahl told The Associated Press last week that the United States is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.

Engdahl was speaking about American literature in general – not individual writers – but some observers still inferred an anti-American bias that would hurt potential – and such perennial U.S. candidates as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo.

Engdahl rejected allegations that the secretive panel at the Swedish Academy is influenced by politics or nationality when choosing its winner.

“In reality we make the decision based on a pure literary evaluation,” he said in the Sept. 30 interview, adding that the academy is a “motley bunch, politically.”

He said that many of the committee’s selections have been viewed as politically controversial, because “great literature always is controversial.”

On the eve of the announcement, British betting agency Ladbrokes gave Italian writer Claudio Magris the shortest odds, ahead of Syrian poet Adonis and Israeli author Amos Oz.

Roth, last year’s favorite, had dropped to fifth place on Ladbroke’s list on the eve of the announcement.

Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinct European flavor. Nine of the subsequent laureates were Europeans, including last year’s winner, Doris Lessing of Britain. Of the other four, one was from Turkey and the others from South Africa, China and Trinidad. All had strong ties to Europe.

The last U.S. writer to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

His comments were met with fierce reactions from the literary world

across the Atlantic. The head of the U.S. National Book Foundation offered to send Engdahl a reading list.

In Sweden, Jonas Thente, a literature critic at daily Dagens Nyheter, said he hoped U.S. writers Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo would share the prize.

“This year’s scandal is about American literature, which has more or less been disrespected by the secretary of the academy,” Thente said in a video clip on the newspaper’s Web site. “I would hope that the big American postmodern novel finally gets the prize.”

The academy often picks obscure writers, making it nearly impossible to predict a winner, but Engdahl denied that academy tries to surprise observers.

“We get astonished by the fact that the general public finds the choice so unexpected,” he said. “Those who finally get the award and become laureates are often old acquaintances, they are old goodies that the academy has chewed on for quite a while and therefore know very well.”

Other names mentioned in speculation on the 2008 prize include Romanian novelist Herta Muller, Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru and Danish poet Inger Christensen.

The writer whose name Engdahl reads aloud on Thursday will be catapulted onto the world stage and is guaranteed to see a rise in sales and out-of-print works returned to circulation.

In addition to the 10 million kronor (US$1.4 million) check, the winner will also receive a gold medal and be invited to give a lecture at the academy’s headquarters in the Swedish capital’s Old Town.

The Nobel Prize in literature is handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10 – the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896 – along with the awards in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway.