Saturday, October 11, 2008

Poetic License, or The Case of the False Lede

David Orr has an Ideas & Trends piece in today's New York Times that opens with this paragraph:
LAST Thursday, the Swedish Academy announced that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, immediately disappointing every writer not named Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and prompting the standard complaints from fans of authors with names like Roth and Updike. Yet, lost in the usual Nobel drama was a larger, stranger and nearly unexplainable fact: While American fiction and theater can boast of at least a few Nobel winners (nine, to be precise), no American poet has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not one, in more than 100 years.
Consider those last two paragraphs.

First, Orr writes that the United States "can boast of at least a few Nobel winners" in fiction and theater—and then immediately self-corrects by saying "nine, at least." That's considerably more than a few.

Then Orr stresses that "no American poet has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not one, in more than 100 years."

Sounds pretty clear, doesn't it? None. Zero. Nada.

Except that Orr self-corrects in the next paragraph. Sort of.
There are two typical responses to this information. The first is to note that T. S. Eliot, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz have a connection to the United States and did, in fact, win the Nobel. Yet while Eliot was born in St. Louis, his status as an American poet is debatable. He had been living in England for more than 30 years when he received the prize in 1948, and had been a British citizen for over 20 of them. It seems as reasonable to call him an English writer who was born in America as an American writer who lived in England. And while Brodsky and Milosz were both United States citizens when they became Nobel laureates, they were also both exiles from authoritarian regimes and were clearly being recognized for their work in and about their homelands, not their connection to their adopted country.
Sorry, Orr, but the fact is that, nine Americans have won the Nobel for their work in theater and fiction...and three American poets have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. You might have a valid point to make about the poets, but your lede is, to put it kindly, a red herring.

No comments: