Set aside snobbery: Rowling's wizardry worthy of Nobel

June 07, 2007|By Douglas MacKinnon

Orhan Pamuk. Elfriede Jelinek. Imre Kertesz. And ... J. K. Rowling?

In recent years, the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in literature to the first three authors on the preceding list. Heard of them or their books? Come on, be honest now. If you answered in the affirmative, congratulations on being a lover of obscure and unread literature.

I want to state clearly that I have absolutely nothing against Mr. Pamuk, Ms. Jelinek or Mr. Kertesz. In fact, I'm thrilled for them. However, as a fellow author - one who is never going to be getting a call from anyone in Stockholm - I am disgusted with the elitist attitude of the academy's Nobel Prize nominating committee for literature. It is failing in its duties, and in so doing, it's giving the love of reading and literature a bad name.

According to the Nobel Web site, when Alfred Nobel drew up his partly incomplete will, he stated that prizes should be given to those who, during the preceding year, "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," and that one part be given to the person who "shall have produced in the field of literature, the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."

Those instructions seem plain enough. While the Swedish Academy will never admit it, though, over the last number of years, the winners of the literature prize have at times been politically correct choices, relatively unread authors or both. I guess that standard is fine for academics, the intelligentsia and the media elite, but that litmus test and those choices do little to represent or promote "the greatest benefit on mankind."

One wonders: Does the mere fact that millions of people chose to buy the book of a "commercial" author automatically cause the academy to remove him or her from their august nominating list? Does the academy secretly hate the fact that people buy and read books?

Knowing it will never happen, I would nonetheless like to propose to the Swedish Academy that it nominate someone who has single-handedly reintroduced reading and literature to a large part of the world. I suggest that for the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy select the formidable Ms. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have brought joy, escape and peace of mind to hundreds of millions of people.

Before they turn up their already elevated noses and laugh at the very thought, in the name of Alfred Nobel, they might give the idea serious consideration. By any honest assessment of what Mr. Nobel had in mind for his prizes, Ms. Rowling more than fits the bill.

Of course, there is precedent for anti-Harry snobbery. Back in 2000, Ms. Rowling and her novel The Prisoner of Azkaban were up for the Whitbread Book of the Year award - the consummate literary honor in Britain. Sadly but predictably, one of the judges said it would be a "national humiliation" if Ms. Rowling won. Another judge defended Ms. Rowling, saying, "That is one of the most pompous things I've ever heard." She lost by a 5-4 vote.

Elitism aside, what greater gift can literature receive than a work that awakens hundreds of millions of children - and their parents - to the power of words and books? What greater tool can the dream of peace have than a book that enables the mind of a child, or an adult, to at least temporarily escape the pain of war, poverty, abuse or dysfunction? Is that not the ultimate "ideal direction"? Growing up, my brother, sister and I knew more than our fair share of pain and poverty. We learned quickly to rely on the immense power of the written word and its magical ability to transport one away from the turmoil of the moment.

This summer, Harry Potter and his wonderfully gifted creator will wave their holly and phoenix-feathered wand once again and unleash the seventh novel in the series. It will sell tens of millions of copies to fans the world over. This, on top of the hundreds of millions the other six have sold. It's an achievement unmatched by any author in the history of writing.

The committee needs to get over itself, climb down from the ivory tower, stand with the unwashed Muggles and award a Nobel Prize in literature to the best-selling author on the planet.

Douglas MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official, is the author of the new novel "America's Last Days." His e-mail is dmackinnon@sandw.com.

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