Whither the Nobel Prize in Literature?

muellerLast week, the German-speaking, Romanian-born novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had never heard of Herta Müller, which is not very surprising. If all the great world writers I’ve never heard of were laid end to end, they would reach from here to Romania.

But come to find that nobody I talked to that day had heard of Herta Müller, including our Europhile ENGL 3362 “History of World Lit II” instructors here at UTA. The UTA Library holds none of her works, only a couple of which are available in English translation even in the UK. My hopes of reading a few Herta Müller novels on the fly and composing a learned blog post on her achievement were dashed. This isn’t just a writer obscure to me; this is a writer obscure to everyone outside of a few corners of Europe.

euckenWell, that’s OK too. After all, the Swedish Academy kicked off the Literature Prize over a century ago by giving it to people like Rudolf Christian Eucken, when they could have given it to Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, or Henrik Ibsen. Hey, Eucken, you just won the Nobel Prize! Think you could buy a hairbrush?

More troubling to red-blooded Americanists was that the Prize, for the 16th year in a row, eluded U.S. writers. Only three English-language writers from the U.S. have won the Nobel Prize in my lifetime (Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and John Steinbeck). Several American emigré writers (writing in European languages, naturally) have won it. But even at that, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t, possibly because he went too native in his adoptive United States.

The Academy is getting self-conscious about its Eurotrend. Chairman Peter Englund admitted that the Prize has become “Eurocentric”, reversing course from his predecessor Horace Engdahl, who disparaged American literature because American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” (Some of us would say that American writing becomes more valuable the more it engages our mass culture, but YMMV.)

harper_leeIs any living American writer really a major world literary figure? The two most durable living American classics are Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, but the Prize is not likely to go to writers (a) known for a slim œuvre or (b) unlikely to turn up in Stockholm and make a nice acceptance speech.

albeeThe most widely-performed living American playwright is probably Edward Albee, who would be a respectable Nobelist. Our most distinguished living poet is perhaps Adrienne Rich, who would make Stockholm a bully pulpit; but one wonders if anyone in Scandinavia has ever heard of her. Our greatest living fiction writer . . . I might say Tim O’Brien, though the larger consensus would argue for Philip Roth. Again, I doubt anyone in Sweden has heard of O’Brien, but Roth is known worldwide and often touted for the Nobel Prize. I guess Roth’s problem is exactly what Horace Engdahl was talking about. Roth’s books are about (among other things) baseball, radio, pornography, stamp collecting, and in one notorious instance, an enormous human breast.

mosleyI’m tempted to make a Nobel case for Philip Roth just out of pop-culture solidarity, but my patience with his shtick is thin enough that I hesitate. Still less do I think that Joyce Carol Oates, the most prolific of highbrow U.S. novelists, has written anything prizeworthy. Louise Erdrich? One of her best books is called The Bingo Palace. I like Don DeLillo, but there you go again: football, baseball, the JFK assassination, paranoid fears of airborne toxic events. I would love to see the British-born emigré Oliver Sacks win the Prize, but authors of bestsellers made into Robin Williams movies are, sad to say, never going to be tapped. Nor can I imagine that Walter Mosley, a gifted writer in various modes, is ever going to win: no detective novelist need apply. And it goes without saying that Bob Dylan is not on the shortlist. Yucky mass culture!

haruki_murakamiPerhaps the Eurocentricity of the Nobel Prize has hurt no American writers. But it has kept the spotlight from African, Asian, and Latin American writers who richly deserve it. The next few Nobel Prizes should go to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Haruki Murakami, Ma Jian, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, in whatever order seems to maximize their chances of staying alive till they’ve all won.

Barring that, I look forward to learning more about the obscurer writers of Central Europe.

—Tim Morris


  1. I would love to see Tim O’Brien win the Nobel. Or Linda Hogan, Marilynne Robinson, Ursula LeGuin, Richard Powers. LeGuin may be too much of the world of genre fiction to really stand a chance (sad as that is), but all of these writers would be worthy Nobel winners in my book. And I think one could argue that although these are clearly writers born of American culture, their emphasis is not so narrow as to lack universal appeal or significance.

  2. I heard Cormac McCarthy is very popular in France, but I don’t know if the 5 Norwegians who decide this thing share that interest. Who are these deciders anyway?

  3. Well, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who hasn’t heard of a Nobel Literature Prize laureate!

  4. this seems like a great idea:
    The next few Nobel Prizes should go to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Haruki Murakami, Ma Jian, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, in whatever order seems to maximize their chances of staying alive till they’ve all won.

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