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Nobel Literature Judge Disparages Western Writers - Again


We are awaiting today's announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature. And as we wait, some attention is focused on one of the judges. He's known for his outspokenness and he's made another provocative statement running down writers from the west, including the United States. NPR's Lynn Neary has been covering this story. She's in our studios. Hi, Lynn.


INSKEEP: So who is this guy?

NEARY: His name is Horace Engdahl, and he is a member of the Swedish Academy. And he is on the literature committee that makes the final decision on who will be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. There are five finalists drawn from about 200 entries. And they are still supposedly deliberating right up to the moment that they decide.

INSKEEP: And these are powerful guys of course because the Nobel Prize is a huge deal in literature and for the individuals who win or lose.

NEARY: That's right. The Nobel carries a lot of weight both in prestige and definitely financially because it's about a little over a million dollars and worth probably a lot more in sales.

INSKEEP: So what did this judge say?

NEARY: Well, OK, this is the second time that he has disparaged the west in the days leading up to the announcement of who wins the Nobel Prize. Six years ago, he made news when he said that the United States didn't really participate in what he called the big dialogue of literature because, he said, U.S. writers are too insular and they don't read enough work in translation. Well, this created some backlash from writers and the literary establishment in this country. Now this time he's kind of expanded his criticism to include the entire west because he's saying that a lot of writers in the west get financial aid from institutions like writing programs or grants.

INSKEEP: They're at a university or there's a foundation that supports their work, something like that.

NEARY: Exactly. And he said in the past, writers have had to support themselves as taxi drivers or secretaries or clerks, and that that put them in touch with people, which then would be reflected in their writing. But now that they have this support from these institutions, maybe they're becoming out of touch, he is saying.

INSKEEP: So do people take this criticism seriously as something more than just a guy sounding off in his spare time?

NEARY: Well, I would say that his remarks have weight right around the time of the Nobels. Do they carry weight beyond that? - I'm not sure. Will people take it seriously? - Maybe they should be taking it seriously. He's also saying that young writers, especially from places like Africa and Asia, do not have this problem, that they are more in touch with what's going on in their own countries and that they're writing reflects that. But one of the interesting things that he did say is that he's concerned that the Nobel committee may not be able to find a writer who represents what Alfred Nobel wanted the prize to represent. Nobel said that he wanted it to go to a great work, but that that work should reflect a certain kind of idealism. It should go in an ideal direction, is the way he put it. And in recent years, that has often meant sort of politics from the left. But he's saying maybe there won't be enough writers, at least from the west, who even show those kind of ideals.

INSKEEP: If one of the judges is saying these kinds of things, which suggests he's leaning against western writers, should we assume there's not going to be a western Nobel winner this year?

NEARY: I don't think you can assume anything with the Nobel Prize committee because they often do surprise us. But, again, because he is one of the six members of the committee who will make the final decision, he could be sort of signaling what this committee has been saying in their deliberations. And in that case, it is possible that a writer from Asia or Africa may be the favorite this year. Certainly, you know, there's this betting agency in London, Ladbrokes, and they set the odds for the Nobel winners every year. And this year, odds on favorites are Kenyon writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o and also Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. So I don't know, maybe it'll be their year.

INSKEEP: Lynn, thanks very much.

NEARY: You're welcome. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lynn Neary. We will hear the winner of the Nobel Prize later this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.