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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Ponders Nobel Ignorance

    It is Nobel time again, a time when many of us learn the names of great writers we'd never heard of before. If I may presume to speak for others as well as myself, why is that we are so, well…ignorant?

     I mean we are readers. We read the New York or Los Angeles Times. We read our New Yorker and, perhaps, our Atlantic assiduously. Our Time or Newsweek. Maybe even a book or two during the year.

    We are writers. Many of us teach writing, literature or other subjects.

   We visit our libraries where we can take in the bulletin boards, fliers and talk to the keepers of wisdom. We surf the Web for research and e-network with other writers.

     We belong to professional groups.

    So why, when a prolific playwright, screenwriter, poet, short story writer and novelist like Harold Pinter wins the Nobel, do so many of us not know him? And if we do, why can we not name a single work?

   I'll tell you why. Those chosen to be crowned with a Nobel are usually foreign and that is sad enough. But more than that, they are literary. That word has become very nearly a dirty word in a culture where we elect presidents based on a high down-home ratio and shun candidates who can think.

    Speaking literarily, "Frankly, my dear," I'm tired of the most famous quote in literature being widely known not from the book but from the movie. I am also tired of hearing many of my writing and reading friends say they don't like or are bored by anything literary.

I have also heard things like:

  • "I never read anything but nonfiction." I presume this means that only cold, hard facts are worthwhile.
  • "I never read anything but (fill in your own favorite here, say Danielle Steele)."
  • "I never cross genres. (Fill in your own favorite here, say, horror) is my thing."

    Using the Nobel as an impetus, I'd like to see us all stretch ourselves a bit at least once in a while. Recently I was asked to monitor a class as part of my preparation for teaching a two day course at UCLA. The class covered the elements of novel writing and was full of screenwriters (UCLA is in LA, after all!) who had determined that writing a blockbuster novel might be a faster road to getting a movie produced than writing screenplays. One of these students was after the instructor for a magic equation for novel writing. I understood. Screenplays use a formula--so many pages of this. The hook. So many pages of that. The first plot point. The instructor tried desperately to explain that novels were different, that structure was important but looser, that novels let a writer ruminate, give a writer time to let their characters change and develop. This student was having none of it. Then he admitted that it had been 20 years since he had picked up a book. Now, how, I ask, can someone be interested in a craft without experiencing it?

     We, as writers--screenwriters or novelists or anything else-- need to get our feet wet. If we don't like a genre--say science fiction--because it is well, beneath us, we should try Ray Bradbury. If we don't didn't pick up The Connection because it was literary or too fat or because Franzen gave Oprah a bad time, maybe we should at least sample it to see what we missed.

   The world is not black and white. The world of literature is just as nuanced. And, being snide here, the United States has some mighty fine authors of our own. That's why I give out my Noble (as opposed to Nobel) prizes each January as part of this column. I want to see writers stretch a bit and get rewarded for it. And, if readers are going to reach a tad, maybe if they are on familiar ground (stories written by Americans, stories set in America), they will come back and extend themselves again. Maybe even find that Hungarians, Poles, and even those Brits have something that we need to hear and that we'll also find entertaining.

     If we had all stretched in the last year, would we then have known Harold Pinter's name? Probably not. But I, for one, wouldn't have felt so…you know..inadequate? I should have at least known he had written one novel, The Dwarfs (1990) even if I hadn't read it.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbits: Writers' Tidbit: There is a new organization for authors out there. Authors' Coalition is a group of authors helping authors. Check out their site at

See what they are doing to support one another's writing and promotion efforts

Readers' Tip: Readers' Tip: Check out Eric Dinyer's new gift book (published by Andrews McMeel). I wrote the foreword as a tribute to my grandson who is leaving for Iraq next month. Proceeds benefit the families of wounded troops and you'll even get a free red white and blue ribbon-magnet for your car as part of the package. I'll bet you can find someone to give one to! (-:

Here is the URL:

2005 Past Columns

Carolyn Offers Up her Third Annual “Noble” Prize For Literature and an Apology
Carolyn Names GI Films from Iraq Literature of the New Millennium

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