Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: The top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.
As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it's no coincidence that most winners are European.
"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States," he said in an interview Tuesday.
He said the 16-member award jury has not selected this year's winner and dropped no hints about who was on the short list. Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates usually figure in speculation, but Engdahl wouldn't comment on any names.
Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," dragging down the quality of their work.
"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."
Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation that administers the National Book Awards, said he wanted to send Engdahl a reading list of U.S. literature.
"Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age," he said.