Nobel literature judge says award 'too Eurocentric'

The most prominent member of the Nobel literature prize jury believes the secretive panel has been too "Eurocentric" in picking winners and said Tuesday there are many writers in the Americas who would qualify for the coveted award.

Authors of the Americas, you may be back in the Nobel running.

The most prominent member of the Nobel literature prize jury believes the secretive panel has been too "Eurocentric" in picking winners and said Tuesday there are many writers in the Americas who would qualify for the coveted award.

Peter Englund's comments ahead of the 2009 prize announcement on Thursday contrast with his predecessor's view last year that U.S. literature is too insular.

Recent Winners
  • 2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, France.
  • 2007: Doris Lessing, Britain.
  • 2006: Orhan Pamuk, Turkey.
  • 2005: Harold Pinter, Britain.
  • 2004: Elfriede Jelinek, Austria.
  • 2003: J.M. Coetzee, South Africa.
  • 2002: Imre Kertesz, Hungary.
  • 2001: V.S. Naipaul, Trinidad-born Briton.
  • 2000: Gao Xingjian, Chinese-born French.
  • 1999: Guenter Grass, Germany.
  • 1998: Jose Saramago, Portugal.
  • 1997: Dario Fo, Italy.
  • 1996: Wislawa Szymborska, Poland.
  • 1995: Seamus Heaney, Ireland.
  • 1994: Kenzaburo Oe, Japan.
  • 1993: Toni Morrison, United States. 

"In most language areas … there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize, and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well," Englund told The Associated Press.

Because award judges in the Swedish Academy are European they tend to have a European outlook on literature, said Englund, who replaced Horace Engdahl as the academy's permanent secretary in June.

"I think that is a problem," Englund said. "We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition."

Engdahl stirred up heated emotions across the Atlantic when he told the AP last year that "Europe still is the centre of the literary world" and the quality of U.S. writing was dragged down because authors were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."

Englund said Tuesday that the academy needs to be aware of its European bias and work on "not becoming too Eurocentric."

Few winners outside of Europe in 15 years

Europeans have dominated the literature awards in recent years. Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, all but two of the laureates have been European citizens, including last year's winner, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio of France. The exceptions were Turkey's Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee of South Africa.

This year's crop of potential candidates includes Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, Americans Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, Israel's Amos Oz and Syrian poet Adonis.

The last American winner was Toni Morrison in 1993. Other parts of the world have waited even longer. No writer from South America has won since Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982. Canadian-born writer Saul Bellow, who won in 1976, was a resident of the United States for most of his life.

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation that administers the National Book Awards, welcomed Englund's comments.

"It's a nice conciliatory statement," said Augenbraum, who spoke out last year against Engdahl's criticism of American literature. "One wonders how they will comply with it. Will they bring in consultants and lecturers to explain the approach non-Europeans take to literature?

"I hope so. The Nobel has such power to help people understand literature as an elastic art form. Every reader knows it, and respects it, despite an annual slinging of mud. The better its principals understand their place in the world republic of letters, the more literature will thrive," he said.

New secretary brings writing experience

The 52-year-old Englund is the youngest member of the Swedish Academy. He reluctantly accepted the assignment as permanent secretary, which includes announcing the Nobel Prize in the academy's office in Stockholm's Old Town.

Nobel code names

To avoid leaks, academy members avoid discussing candidates in emails or in public. When they must — such as when they dine out together — they use quirky code names, like "Chateaubriand" for last year's winner, Jean-Marie Le Clézio of France. 

Britons Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter, winners in 2007 and 2005, were "Little Dorrit" and "Harry Potter," while Orhan Pamuk — the 2006 winner — was simply dubbed "OP," initials that Swedes associate with a domestic brand of liquor. — Associated Press

"I'm an author and historian myself, and I have been enjoying the life of a free writer, living on my pen, as it were, since the late '80s, and it has been an existence that I have thoroughly enjoyed," he said. "But now I'm here, and I'm going to perform this task."

Created in 1786, the Swedish Academy has 18 seats, although one is currently vacant and two members don't take part in its activities. Academy members have lifetime appointments, with new members chosen by a secret vote that must be approved by the group's patron, King Carl XVI Gustaf.

The academy has selected the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature since 1901, in line with the wishes of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who established the prizes in his 1895 will.

The academy never discusses potential winners and even keeps nominations secret for 50 years. This year, Danish literature professor Anne-Marie Mai revealed she had nominated Bob Dylan because she was upset about Engdahl's critical remarks about American literature.

Englund didn't rule out that a songwriter could qualify for the prize, saying the academy "should be generous in the interpretation of what is and what is not literature."

"I think the boundaries are a bit more porous, a bit more generous, a bit more flexible than one imagines, and I hope that they will be expanded," he said.

Each Nobel Prize includes a $1.4 million US purse, a gold medal and a diploma. The awards are handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.