The joke is that there's something in the lake water, or that the long winters are responsible. But Wednesday night, when two Minneapolis authors won 50 percent of the prestigious National Book Awards, the rest of the country became aware of something that people here already knew: This is one heck of a book town.

The awards that went to novelist Louise Erdrich for "The Round House" and to William Alexander for his debut young-adult novel, "Goblin Secrets," are just the latest in an unprecedented series of honors for Minnesota writers and publishers.

"This award is for stories that are grounded here, about us," Erdrich said after returning from New York on Thursday. "It belongs to the Native community, to North Dakotans and Minnesotans." Erdrich, whose novel is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation, gave her acceptance speech in both English and Ojibwe. She won against stiff competition, including best-selling author Dave Eggers and Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz.

"People elsewhere think that it's cold and desolate around these parts, but that cold is good for literacy and reading and culture," she said. "We live in a very special place, and I'm glad to call it home."

Minnesota has a long literary tradition, dating to Robert Bly's little magazine The Fifties, Sinclair Lewis' Nobel Prize and everything F. Scott Fitzgerald ever did. But recent years have seen a steady rise in the state's literary profile.

Poet Matt Rasmussen -- born in International Falls, now living in Robbinsdale -- won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award; poet Jim Moore won a Guggenheim Fellowship; authors published by Graywolf Press won a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize and a National Book Critics Circle award, and an author published by Coffee House Press was a Pulitzer finalist.

And that was just this year.

"It's acknowledged nationally that we have one of the best literary cultures in the country," said Jocelyn Hale, executive director of the Loft, the nation's largest literary center.

Hale credits a strong philanthropic community, prestigious literary presses, respected master's collegiate programs and "one of the best independent bookstore cultures in the country."

Erdrich a bookstore owner

Erdrich has long been a fixture in the Twin Cities. In 2001, she opened Birchbark Books, one of two independent bookstores owned by local authors. (Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books is the other.)

But the Midwest's reputation as "flyover land" might mean that writers must work a little harder to be appreciated.

"It's absolutely wonderful that Louise won," said writer and University of Minnesota Prof. Charles Baxter, whose novel, "The Feast of Love," was a National Book Award finalist in 2000.

"I say that not just because of local pride. I think Louise is a writer of exceeding excellence who would've gotten the award a long time ago if she'd lived on the East Coast. Some people in New York think it's a failure of taste and intellect to live in the Midwest."

Baxter, a Twin Cities native who taught at the University of Michigan before returning, credits a long history of readers and writers for the ferment that we see today.

"My aunt danced with F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, and she said he was a pretty good mover," he said. "We have an infrastructure of publishers, writing programs, a great literary center, a boatload of reading series. And there are avid, hungry readers here."

Strong philanthropy

Publisher Daniel Slager came here in 2005 from New York to run Milkweed Editions. "What I found has completely exceeded my expectations," he said, citing vibrancy in teaching, reading, writing and publishing. "And none of this would exist if not for the tremendous philanthropic support. Minnesota understands that literature is an art form that requires support. That is unusual in our country.

"The arts are rich here. If this metro area is [ranked nationally] between 15 and 20 in terms of size, it's in the top 5 in terms of culture. All of the arts are strong here, but the books scene in particular. People call it the second city of publishing, after New York."

Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books -- where National Book Award winner Alexander once worked -- believes the arts and literature set the Twin Cities apart. "I think Minneapolis-St. Paul aspires to be a major metropolis in the midst of the Midwestern prairie. And in striving to do that, I think it largely succeeds through the arts."

When Alexander and his wife, artist Alice Dodge, moved to Minneapolis six years ago, he found himself "pleasantly astonished" at the literary community. Alexander, who teaches writing at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, spoke Thursday from a New York cab on his way to the airport, still thrilled at being awarded "the heaviest possible trophy imaginable" Wednesday night.

"I'd heard rumors about the arts community, but I had no idea it was such an amazing town," he said. "Such an amazing theater town, an amazing literary town. We live in Powderhorn, and there are about a dozen other novelists in our neighborhood." • 612-673-7302 • 612-673-4390