Saturday, October 3, 2009


The winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on Thursday October 8. Israeli writer Amos Oz is the predictors' favorite this year, which means he probably doesn't have a chance in hell of winning. Whatever one may think of the Nobel committee's choices, they are almost always surprising. Last year's win by J.M.G. Le Clezio (a writer I still haven't read) sent me and millions of other non-French readers to Wikipedia to find out exactly who the hell this dude with three initials was and what he had written that was so nobelisable. Likewise the recent wins by Elfriede Jelinek and Imre Kertesz, writers little-known outside Europe. Doris Lessing's and Harold Pinter's wins were surprising for their extreme tardiness; Orhan Pamuk's Nobel, by contrast, seemed to come surprisingly early.

So if Amos Oz can be safely counted out, who might the other contenders be? British bookmaker Ladbrokes is giving odds on Oz, Assia Djebar, Syrian poet Adonis, and perpetual American mentions Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates. Philip Roth, a favorite in years past, hasn't been mentioned recently, so this may be his year. But the pool of nobelisable writers is broad, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the following walked away with this year's award: Carlos Fuentes, Chinua Achebe, Milan Kundera, David Grossman, Korean poet Ko Un, Juan Goytisolo, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie (but that would take real courage, so it's unlikely), Adrienne Rich, Milorad Pavic, Peter Carey, Edna O'Brien, Wilson Harris (Guyana), Ernesto Sabato (who at 98 would be the prize's oldest recipient)... But I suspect the winner's name has not yet been mentioned in this blog.

And all this speculation raises another question: What does the Nobel mean? It's an amazingly good payday for the winner, and it's undeniably prestigious, but is the prize's prestige really deserved? The negative case is easily made: simply list a few of the great writers who went to their graves un-Nobeled. The list is a veritable Who's Who of twentieth-century literature: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Baldwin, D.H, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison, Andre Breton, Paul Celan, Antonin Artaud, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Simone de Beauvoir, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Witold Gombrowicz, and the list goes on... To put the case as succinctly as possible: Why should we grant so much prestige to a literary award that preferred Pearl Buck to James Joyce? Now, some readers will surely consider that question 'elitist.' They will be correct. The question is elitist, and in matters of art, so is the questioner.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Hi - I happened across your blog today when I was looking up stuff on Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. I've been enjoying reading through the archives.

On the question of the Nobel, I've always found it curious, and yet relatively reliable, for me. That is, I've had good luck with the Nobel authors I've read, though admittedly I've read very few of them because they were Nobel prize winners.