Thursday, October 12, 2006

So far this year, Americans have won every single Nobel Prize but one — but the loss was of the only Nobel in the field of culture.

Orhan Pamuk was named the 2006 Nobel laureate in literature, announced yesterday in Stockholm. The postmodern Turkish novelist (the author of “Snow”) has gained publicity in the last year, but not for his work — he was on trial in his native country for “insulting Turkishness” in his comments about the Armenian massacre.

Mr. Pamuk’s win ended what had been an American rout. Americans won the medicine, physics, chemistry and economics prizes (the last being the only Nobel not mentioned in the will of Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel).

No American, in fact, has won the literature prize since 1993, when “Beloved” author Toni Morrison took home the gold medal — and 10 million Swedish kronor, now worth about $1.37 million.

“Reality still accounts for something in those realms of endeavor,” Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher of the New Criterion, says of the sciences. “Either the bridge stands up or the medication works or the new element is discovered, or it’s not.”

When asked whom he guessed might win, Mr. Kimball demurred. “I haven’t been keeping up with pathologies of small Third World countries,” he says. “I don’t know what freaks are on offer.”

The bookmakers seemed to. The night before the announcement, British gambling company Ladbroke’s had picked Syrian poet Adonis (born Ali Ahmed Said) to win, 3-1. Mr. Pamuk had 7-1 odds.

Mr. Kimball’s joke aside, the First World has had its share of recent winners. In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter was named the literature laureate. The year before that, Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek took home the Nobel.

Both awards, however, caused controversy — in the latter case, even within the prize-bestowing 18-member Swedish Academy itself.

Knut Ahnlund resigned last year from the Academy, to which members are appointed for life, because of the award given to Miss Jelinek, whose oeuvre often deals with sexuality. He said the prize had irreparably damaged the Academy’s reputation.

Mr. Pinter’s award ignited a war of words around the world. He seems to spend more time these days criticizing America’s foreign policy than he does writing plays. And his win, critics argued, proved the literature prize is as political as the Peace Prize.

“All talk of political motives in our rewards is nonsense,” Horace Engdahl, the Academy’s permanent secretary, said in an e-mail to Associated Press. “Any idiot can say that ‘Pinter was rewarded for his criticism of the USA,’ but how many can write a competent assessment about his efforts as a dramatist?”

Mr. Kimball certainly could.

But he still believes the award has been “discredited.”

“Here’s a prize that’s been won by T.S. Eliot, Kipling and Yeats,” Mr. Kimball remarks. “True, there have been dogs all along. But the dogs earlier along were not so ideologically repellent.”

“The last couple of decades, it’s been a platform or pulpit more for expression of rectitude than literary talents,” he concludes. “Part of the function of the prize is to assure the Academy of their own higher sensitivity.”

Mr. Pamuk’s win — just months after Turkey dropped charges against him amid the backdrop of an international uproar — seems more than a coincidence. At 54, he’s on the young side of literature laureates, who tend to be in their 60s and 70s with a long career behind them.

Jessa Crispin, editor of the online magazine Bookslut, seems like the kind of person who might be sympathetic to some of the Academy’s political views. But even she believes the award has been a “political statement” for the past few years .

“‘Thanks for saying this thing about the war’ or ‘thanks for having this unpopular position,’” Ms. Crispin says while explaining her interpretation of what the Academy appears to be saying. “You have to remember, it’s a panel of people in Sweden. The Nobel Prize shouldn’t be taken as seriously as it is in America.”

Yet a politicized Nobel Prize doesn’t mean America shouldn’t consider the state of its literature, Ms. Crispin cautions.

“Some of the best literature comes from places of strife,” she says while speaking by phone from Chicago. “It comes from places where people are oppressed.”

Perhaps that’s why Americans haven’t won many Nobels in literature since the award was established in 1901.

“I feel like America’s pool of great writers is not very interesting right now. I don’t really care for Philip Roth, I don’t really care for John Updike,” Ms. Crispin says of two writers many critics believe deserve the prize. “I’m really bored with the older, white man who has erection problems. I’m really tired of that book.”

“The problem is, women American writers are really amazing right now and are really finding their foothold and producing some really great stuff,” she says. “But women writers don’t get as much attention, they don’t get as many sales. For whatever reason, the New York Times is more interested in writing about Jonathan Safran Foer’s new house in Brooklyn than declaring something by a woman to be an amazing new novel that everybody should be reading.”

Mr. Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”), a native Washingtonian, and writer Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections”) get lots of attention. But Ms. Crispin argues their books aren’t much different from those of their predecessors.

“Life is changing,” she declares. “But it’s the same books I’ve been reading for 30 years.”

She adds that this sounds like “kneejerk feminism,” even to her. But the observation comes from someone whose Web site is one of the most-read for publishing news.

Ms. Crispin thinks the Nobel can serve an important purpose to Americans — just not one of recognition. “It is a good way to bring world authors, not American authors, to the attention of Americans,” she says. “The most boring thing they could do is to give it to Philip Roth. He doesn’t need a bump in sales or exposure, and everyone sees him as the elder statesman anyway.”

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