NEW YORK — What does it take to win the Nobel prize in literature — daring politics or great writing? Justified fame or unjustified obscurity?
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A Nobel official’s harsh words about the laureate of 2004, Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek, suggests that not even the award academy can come up with an answer.
Blame some of it on Alfred Nobel himself.
Nobel, who died in 1896, decreed in his will that the literature prize should go to “the person who shall have produced ... the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” a phrase vague enough to confound even the most distinguished scholars.
But one longtime Academy member, Knut Ahnlund, apparently has a theory. On Tuesday, he launched a rare and bitter attack on Jelinek’s work, which he labeled “a mass of text that appears shoveled together without trace of artistic structure.”
Concerned about the prize’s reputation, Ahnlund wrote in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that Jelinek’s selection had caused “irreparable damage to all progressive forces” and “confused the general view of literature as an art.”
Ahnlund, who for years has not been part of the selection process, declared: “As of now, I consider myself an outsider.”
Members have exiled themselves before. Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten left in 1989 to protest the academy’s failure to express support for Salman Rushdie after an edict calling for his death was issued by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Active academy voters dismissed Ahnlund’s criticism, adding it had not affected their choice for this year’s winner, which will be announced Thursday. But in selecting Jelinek, whose books include “The Piano Teacher” and “Lust,” the academy continued to alternate between the famous and the unknown, between authors defined by what they write and authors defined by what they believe.
Since the first prize, in 1901, the Nobels have reflected an ongoing evolution of “ideal direction.” The academy originally favored conservatives such as Rudyard Kipling, while snubbing Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola. During World War I, several prizes went to Scandinavians as the academy sought to avoid the appearance of taking sides with fighting countries. In the 1930s, “ideal direction” was reinterpreted as “universal interest,” with popular authors such as Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis among the beneficiaries.
Now, the Academy seems headed in all directions, aiming to please and to provoke.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were opposing camps within the academy, and that there are trade-offs. We know that prizes get decided that way sometimes,” says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published Nadine Gordimer, Eugenio Montale and other Nobel laureates.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Recent picks such as V.S. Naipaul and Guenter Grass were established authors whose Nobels were greeted by knowing nods from the literary community. Others, including Jelinek and Italian playwright Dario Fo, inspired a collective scratch of the head. Jelinek was called too political. Another choice, South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee, was criticized for not being political enough.
“I love the fact that the Nobels are eccentric and unpredictable and that they select some fairly obscure writers. I know as a publisher you can justify taking on some esoteric writers by saying, ‘Maybe they’ll win the Nobel,”’ says Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., which has released some of Jelinek’s work.
“A lot of the Nobel choices aren’t going to stack up well over the years, but I don’t think it matters,” Galassi says. “The prize has such weight. It has such incredible power, moral power.”
The 18-member Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, said Tuesday that the academy does not explain its decisions beyond what is in the prize citation, and does not respond to criticism from people who dislike its picks.
The academy surprised many observers when it did not reveal the winner last week. The rest of this year’s Nobel Prizes have already been announced.
Thursday is Yom Kippur, a day observant Jews spend in fasting and prayer. Among the favorites for this year’s $1.3 million prize is Jewish-American author Philip Roth. Others include American Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood of Canada and Nuruddin Farah of Somalia.
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