- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2011

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The Swedish panel that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t biased toward European writers or against American writers, a member of the panel said Wednesday.

Nationality isn’t an important factor in selecting the prize winner, Swedish Academy member and acclaimed poet Kjell Espmark told The Associated Press.

Other members of the Swedish Academy have suggested both biases exist.

In 2008, the committee’s then-permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, said European writers tend to beat out American writers because American literature is overly insular. In 2009, his successor, Peter Englund, worried the prize was too “Eurocentric.”


The list of the past 20 laureates includes one American _ novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993 _ and 11 European writers, including German novelist Gunter Grass and British playwright Harold Pinter. Some of the others selected during that time are not from Europe but have spent much of their writing careers there.

The literature prize election is by secret ballot among the 18 members of the Swedish Academy. Espmark has been a member of the Academy since 1981.

Engdahl sparked an uproar in 2008 when he declared in an interview with the AP that Europeans tend to win because they deserve to win, particularly compared with Americans, whom he dismissed as “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

Engdahl’s words were taken out of context, Espmark said Wednesday.

“That interview was summed up in such a way that could make you think that American writers were out of the question because they were too insular and so on. That’s just nonsense,” he said. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America.”

Very few foreign-language books make it into English, especially in the U.S. market, and even fewer reach a wide audience, as Espmark pointed out.

“It’s just a matter of a low percentage of translation that makes American audiences rather unaware of what happens in other countries,” he said.

He also said he disagreed with Englund when he revealed in 2009 that he thought it was a problem that members of the Swedish Academy tend to “relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition.”

“The nation is not important, and balance (of laureates’ homelands) is not interesting,” Espmark said, noting that the panel tries to be impartial and make selections based purely on literary criteria.

Espmark, who is a professor emeritus of literary history at Stockholm University, was in Rhode Island as part of a tour to promote his latest collection of poetry, “Lend Me Your Voice.” He gave a lecture at Providence College and read from the poetry collection; he spoke to the AP afterward.