The Never-Ending Angst Over the Nobel Prize In Literature

Ian Crouch asks why more Americans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The last one to do so was Toni Morrison in 1993, an award I remember especially clearly because a) I had only recently started reading her and b) I was struck by the fact of an African-American woman writer being so recognized.)

This sort of discussion seems vaguely familiar to me: worries about whether the Nobel committee–a bunch of Swedes!–is deliberately resisting an ever-threatening global American hegemony and/or rubbing American noses in it by selecting year after year, ‘obscure’ writers and poets that Americans will be unfamiliar with; vague condemnations that ironically flirt with narrow-mindedness themselves while indicting the American literary scene of provincialism and parochialism; suspicions that the Nobel Prize is awarded to those literary works that are, for some reason or the other, simply not produced by American writers; and so on. (These discussions are distinct from the usual dismayed and disbelieving, ‘Can you believe X was never awarded/Y hasn’t yet been/Z has been nominated for/ the prize?’)

This buzzing mass of speculation, confusion and half-baked theorizing is inevitable: first, we are talking about a Prize, and second its being awarded for Literature. (The money associated with the Nobel Prize does its bit but, really, it’s the hype that does most of the damage.) Judging writers by panels was always going to generate this sort of discussion. If prizes for physics can engender as much controversy as they have, then literature should be even more productive.

The good news for Crouch is that if an American doesn’t win this year, he can just republish the same piece next year.

Note: The most entertaining part of the Crouch piece comes in the comments, where a cranky gentleman writes:

It startles me to find that some people believe America to be a literary powerhouse.  My impression is that 95% of the material to be found in bookstores, or in lists of prize winners, was all written by the same person who had spent too many years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Truth is, the literary industry today aims its products primarily at semi-educated urban feminist careerists who adhere to the current liberal dogmas while employing a demotic prose that reads as if it were dictated by a 35-year-old woman with a Northeastern degree while she lies soaking in warm bathwater.

Do this – go to your nearest bookstore, pick up some highly praised post-modern novel, open said book, and read just the first page.  Do this ten times with ten different novels, and then swear to me on your life that they were not authored by some adept, or some inept I should have said, piece of software. Because that’s where the money is, at the most congested segment of the Bell Curve.

I once asked an editor if William Faulkner could be published today, assuming he weren’t already famous.  “Certainly not,” she said.  “No one would publish him today, and if someone did, no one would read him.”