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Which American Writer Most Deserves the Nobel?

October 5, 2011, 5:34 PM

If past trends are any guide, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature will go to a post-postmodern Francophone novelist from a forgotten duchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And yet partisans of American literature continue to hold out hope that the Swedish Academy will, someday, honor one of our own again. No American has won the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993; before that, the last American-born winner was John Steinbeck in 1962. (Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky both adopted the U.S. as their homeland, but Bellow was born in Canada and Brodsky, of course, in the former Soviet Union.) 

The drought is conspicuous, given that America dominates the international book publishing world as it does most other media. But, you might say, that’s just it: why should the Academy heap more money and fame on writers who get it already? Why shouldn’t they honor equally deserving, but lesser known, candidates instead? It’s a fair question, to which my answer is: they owe us, after that remark Horace Engdahl made a few years back. Engdahl, the former Swedish Academy permanent secretary, famously claimed that American literature was “too isolated, too insular,” to merit consideration. He later admitted that the criticism may have been "a bit too generalizing," but you know what would really soothe our hurt feelings? Sweet Nobel gold.

America is somewhat hampered by the fact that some of our best recent candidates are now gone. In their different ways, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Grace Paley, and August Wilson would all have made worthy choices, but all have died un-Nobelled within the past ten years.

As much as I’d love to see a poet win, I’m having a tough time thinking of an American poet who truly fits the bill. Not that we don’t have some extraordinary talent in this genre; but the Nobel Committee seems to have a certain style, a certain prototype in mind when it comes to their poet honorees. They seem to favor figures like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, both of whom combine a certain earthiness, a rootedness in the local, with an international outlook. So while John Ashbery, for example, may be a highly influential artist, I think he’s too much the mandarin experimentalist to snag the prize. On the other hand, Bob Dylan (who ranks high on the Ladbrokes oddsmakers’ list this year) may not be as hopeless a prospect as some pundits have suggested. The rootsy “authenticity” of his image, combined with the influence of his more political songs, might actually endear him to the committee. And whatever you think of his lyrics as serious poetry, he’s arguably been responsible for reinvigorating the bardic (“singer/songwriter”) tradition in our time.

Eugene O’Neill is the only American playwright ever to win, but Edward Albee and Tony Kushner both have Nobel-level stature, and Kushner, in particular, seems like the Academy’s kind of writer. He’s both erudite and populist; his talent and ambition are outsized; his work speaks for marginalized communities; and his major flaw—a tendency toward political message-making—is barely a flaw at all, in the prize committee’s eyes.

What about novelists? Philip Roth is a perennial favorite; Michael Bourne at The Millions went so far as to publish an “Open Letter to the Swedish Academy” this week, stumping on his behalf. Bourne contends that Roth’s most frequently cited flaws—misogyny in particular—are also his central thematic concerns, and thus part and parcel of what makes his work great. It’s a well-written piece, but it leaves out one obvious argument in favor of Roth's chances: if misogyny disqualified you from the Nobel, they’d have long since yanked back V. S. Naipaul’s prize.

As for our other novelists—well, I’d like to hear from readers. Who’s our best bet? Cormac McCarthy? Thomas Pynchon? Joyce Carol Oates? Marilynne Robinson? Some obscure, yet worthy dark-horse contender? Share your opinions if you’ve got ‘em; the prize is announced tomorrow morning.


[Image: 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature announcement. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]


Which American Writer Most ...

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