Literary Nobel is blowin’ in the wind

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The Independent Online

The “Yanks, no thanks” policy of past Nobel literary prize juries will be written out of the script of the 2009 award, to be announced tomorrow.

Without hinting, necessarily, at an American winner, the new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy has criticised what he called the “Eurocentric” approach of Nobel juries in recent years.

His predecessor, Horace Engdahl, stunned literary America last year by saying that modern US writers were too “insular” to merit a global literary prize.

Peter Englund, who took over as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in June, told the Associated Press: “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.”

Since the judges in the Swedish Academy were European they had tended to favour European authors, he suggested. “I think that is a problem,” he said. “We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition.”

His predecessor, Mr Engdahl, provoked an outcry – and not just in America – when he said last year that “Europe still is the centre of the literary world”. The last American winner was Toni Morrison in 1993. All but two of the last 15 winners have been Europeans.

Two American writers , Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, are among this year’s favourites but the 3-1 front-runner is Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist.

The Swedish academy does not usually disclose its nominees. In double protest against Mr Engdahl’s anti-American statement, one academy member, the Danish literature professor Anne-Marie Mai, has flouted the rule this year and announced that she had nominated the American singer and song-writer, Bob Dylan.

Mr Englund says there is no reason why Mr Dylan should not win (he is a modest 25-1 with Ladbrokes). “The academy should be generous in the interpretation of what is and what is not literature,” he said. “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.”

A Ladbrokes spokesman, Nick Weinberg, said that the popularity of the 70-year-old Amos Oz, among Swedish academics had made him the clear favourite with punters. Mr Oz’s work includes the novels “To Know a Woman”, “A Panther in the Basement”, “Suddenly in the Depth of the Forest” and “Rhyming Life and Death”.

However, Mr Winberg pointed out that “punters have not been put off Oates and Roth despite the former Nobel secretary’s criticism of American writing.”

Ladbrokes have been taking bets on the Nobel literary prize for seven years. In that time, the punters’ favourite has only won twice. In other words, the likely identity of this year’s winner is “Blowin’ in the wind.”