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Some thoughts on the Nobel Prize in Literature

I teach for a living, and the place where I teach runs on a semester cycle, so I tend to have a fall/spring orientation in a lot of ways. One of the ways it manifests itself is that each year I get invested in two major sets of awards. In the spring its the Pulitzers, which to me are a signpost of all that is great and good (and sometimes not) in American writing, particularly (for me) in the history, biography, and general nonfiction categories.


It's fall, though, which means it's time for the Nobels.


Right now the Nobel Committee is announcing the science awards. I love those awards, as I feel as though they give us an opportunity for a few days every year to discover all of the amazing ways in which we humans are expanding our knowledge and understanding of our world. Reading Marc Raboy's recent biography of Guglielmo Marconi (Nobel laureate in physics, 1909) also helped me to realize that they also recognize discoveries that shape or will shape our lives, though this is probably more evident in with the Medicine award than the other science ones. On Friday they will announce the Nobel Peace Prize, which may be the biggest touchstone we have about our values and progress as a civilization.


Then next week they will announce the Nobel Prize in Literature, which is easily the biggest prize there is in all of writing. I like that they give it to an author for their entire body of literature, rather than just one work like most literary awards, and they've given it to a lot of great writers over the years (though the list of writers who never received one -- Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Émile Zola, Jorge Luis Borges, Chinua Achebe -- is even more illustrious). Lately, though, I greet the news of the award with a puzzled, "Who?", because they are some internationally-recognized author whose name somehow never gets mentioned in the media.


At least that was how I thought of it until I read this article about the odds of who might win it this year. At about the midway point one of those epiphanies-that-should-have-been-obvious-long-ago struck me, which that I am an American who knows diddley-squat about world literature. Yes, I can rattle off the names of some great American writers (Philip Roth, Dom DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates) and I can also identify a few prominent foreign ones as well -- Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Clive James, Haruki Murakami.


Notice anything that these writers have in common? If your answer is that they all write in English, you're absolutely correct (and yes, I know Murakami writes in Japanese, but his books get enormous play in the U.S. when they are released in translation). The reality is that my literary scope has some big damn blinders on it. Take the four authors identified in the article as having the best odds of winning the Prize this year: Adonis, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Jon Fosse, and Ko Un. Have you even heard of these four before this moment, let alone read any of their works? If the answer is yes, then you have my respect, but I suspect for most of us the answer is no.

This is when my appreciation increased for the challenge they have in awarding the prize. How do you recognize the best writers in all of world literature? Think of the scope: to do so requires knowing the contemporary literature of scores of countries, not all of which is translated into English, let alone Swedish. Then their merits have to be assessed relative to each other. Politics of various sorts undoubtedly comes into play, which if nothing else has to be a factor for the Literature prize to maintain the stature it possesses. And then they give out one award. One. Per year. Considering all of that, I should be impressed that I recognize any of the writers on the list of recent laureates.


All of this is not to say that I forgive the committee for their sins. To this day they have an understandable bias in favor of Scandinavian literature that they seem unwilling to overcome (and yet in spite of that the one Scandinavian author we would all be able to recognize -- Stieg Larsson -- never received one) and they often favor writers as much for their political leanings as for their works. But perhaps in the years to come I will spend less time complaining about the "obscurity" of the writer to whom they have the award and more time instead searching out some of their works so as to broaden myself. It really is what makes literary awards worth following.


Still, it would be awesome if Thomas Pynchon ever won it.