Which American Writer Most Deserves the Nobel?

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.]

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

15 surprising life lessons from a highly successful 80-year-old

You can use these to get ahead, no matter your age.

Personal Growth

Blackstone's Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of Private Wealth Solutions Group, gave a speech laying out the wisdom he learned during his 80 years. Here are 15 of Wien's best life lessons, which teach us about improving our productivity, sleep, burnout avoidance, and everything in between.

Keep reading Show less

Employees don't quit their job, they quit their boss

According to TwoFold CEO Alison McMahon, a leader who doesn't care (or can't pretend to care) about his or her employees isn't much of a leader at all.

Photo credit: Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

Why do people quit their jobs? Surely, there are a ton of factors: money, hours, location, lack of interest, etc. For Alison McMahon, an HR specialist and the CEO of TwoFold, the biggest reason employees jump ship is that they're tired of working for lousy bosses.

By and large, she says, people are willing to put up with certain negatives as long as they enjoy who they're working for. When that's just not the case, there's no reason to stick around:

Nine times out of ten, when an employee says they're leaving for more money, it's simply not true. It's just too uncomfortable to tell the truth.

Whether that's true is certainly debatable, though it's not a stretch to say that an inconsiderate and/or incompetent boss isn't much of a leader. If you run an organization or company, your values and actions need to guide and inspire your team. When you fail to do that, you set the table for poor productivity and turnover.

McMahon offers a few suggestions for those who want to hone their leadership abilities, though it seems that these things are more innate qualities than acquired skills. For example, actually caring about your workers or not depending wholly on HR thinking they can do your job for you.

It's the nature of promotions that, inevitably, a good employee without leadership skills will get thrust into a supervisory position. McMahon says this is a chronic problem that many organizations need to avoid, or at least make the time to properly evaluate and assist with the transition.

But since they often don't, they end up with uninspired workers. And uninspired workers who don't have a reason to stay won't stick around for long.

Read more at LinkedIn.

Radical theory says our universe sits on an inflating bubble in an extra dimension

Cosmologists propose a groundbreaking model of the universe using string theory.

Getty Images/Suvendu Giri
Surprising Science
  • A new paper uses string theory to propose a new model of the universe.
  • The researchers think our universe may be riding a bubble expanded by dark energy.
  • All matter in the universe may exist in strings that reach into another dimension.
Keep reading Show less