Thursday, October 8, 2009

ONE LAST NOBEL PRIZE POST (and then no more about it until next October, I promise)

What can we conclude about the Nobel Prize from a list of the last 25 winners? (Click on each name to see the writer's official page at the Nobel foundation's website.)

2009 - Herta Müller
2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 - Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe
1993 - Toni Morrison
1992 - Derek Walcott
1991 - Nadine Gordimer
1990 - Octavio Paz
1989 - Camilo José Cela
1988 - Naguib Mahfouz
1987 - Joseph Brodsky
1986 - Wole Soyinka
1985 - Claude Simon

It's an eclectic list that at first appears to defy generalizations. True, more than half are Europeans, so the prize is certainly Eurocentric, but does anyone really expect a prize awarded by Europeans to be non-Eurocentric? More troubling to me is the fact that the prize seems to have 'contracted' into a strictly European award during the last few years. Looking at the 1980s through 2000, we see laureates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, China, Japan--and even one lonely American. But since 2001 Europeans have dominated. Not a single writer from the Western hemisphere has won the prize since V.S. Naipaul (who although born in Trinidad is, by general agreement, more English than the English); no American has won since Toni Morrison; no one from Central or South America since Derek Walcott; only two East Asian writers have won in 25 years. And even the non-Europeans who have won recently (Pamuk and Coetzee) are writers deeply indebted to European literature. The Swedish Academy needs to look outward or risk closing itself into a European box.

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