Isn’t it called the Nobel Prize for – Literature…?

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded today. There are a large number of arguably splendid candidates. Who will win? Likely none of them….

Nobel Prize Medal (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The Nobel committee has chosen the 2015 Nobelist in Literature and their choice will have been announced by the time you read this. The list of candidates with credentials strong enough to be legitimate contenders. There are even those out there who spend time handicapping the field. First, the bad news: it seems highly unlikely that an American will get the award despite a strong contingent of worthy candidates including Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashberry, Don DeLillo, and my personal favorite, Richard Ford. (Odds makers exclude those whom the Nobel committee likely consider “regional” writers – worthy authors such as Cormac McCarthy or John Ehle.)

Even Bob Dylan is mentioned as a candidate. But that choice is by all accounts blowin’ in the wind. Or tangled up in blue. Or something.

Meanwhile, there are some heavy hitters in world literature who are probably going to whiff on this turn at the prize, too. You know the names: Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Peter Handke, Amos Oz, Karl Ove Knausgard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Tom Stoppard.  The major problem these authors have, it would seem, is that they’ve been perhaps too popular and successful. That seems to be a handicap to the Nobel committee. (One is reminded of the reluctance of the Academy to award Oscars to its biggest box office stars.)

So who will win? The leading contenders seem to be a Belarusian, a South Korean, a Kenyan, a Hungarian, and an Egyptian. It’s highly probable that you have never read any of them.

The Nobel committee seems to think that choosing a less well known writer will make audiences read that author. That’s a noble enough aim, I suppose, but I’m not sure that’s what the prize is for. I’ve always thought the Nobel was to honor a writer whose body of work has made a contribution to human culture. Being popular doesn’t preclude that, does it?  It shouldn’t, anyway.

So maybe I’m advocating giving the Nobel to J.K. Rowling? Well, no. But I am advocating that the Nobel committee choose its Literature winner based on the quality of his/her work – and that economic, political, or any other considerations not trump that criterion.

5 replies »

  1. I’d love to see Stephen King get it, not just for his body of work, but for his support for writers. All of the authors you mentioned are more than worthy. It is sad the Nobel committee refuses to accept their huge contributions to literature. Good article.

    • Hi, Juliette,

      Is King a great writer worthy of the Nobel? Hmm…I’d say rather that he’s an important writer – highly influential and one who has, as you note, given back in positive ways. I’d say the same for Rowling.

      Being important culturally is not the same as being great artistically. I don’t think of either King or Rowling when I think of great writing. That may seem a picayune differentiation (and may make me as prissy as the Nobel committee), but it’s an important difference to me….

      • I’m really interested in this discussion for a lot of reasons, and Jim notes a number of talented writers. I can’t imagine how Rowling got into the conversation, though. I loved the HP series and think she’s very important for her role in making reading cool for a younger generation. But not only is she not a great writer, she’s not an especially good one.

  2. Ummm. Who are you and how did you get Jim Booth’s login credentials?

    I can’t believe I’m hearing you lobbying for writers who are essentially popular/genre vs lit fic. I don’t know that I disagree, but it’s a stance I can’t say I have seen from you in a couple decades.

    • If you’ve read my work, Sam, then you know good and well, that my position has evolved. I’m not, for example, a fan of Gaiman, Martin, But I know that Gaiman, for instance, is a very good writer and that he is speaking to issues that resonate with many, many readers. I can respect that – and if he gets into the Nobel discussion, maybe that’s simply a reflection of the evolving state of literature. The award should go to a talented w riter doing outstanding work – and shouldn’t be limited based on some now passe view of what “literature ought to be.” Sigrid Undset got the Nobel for “Kristin Lavransdatter” and her work is historical fiction. It’s not a giant step from there to alternate history, fantasy, and sci-fi. Vonnegut was in serious Nobel conversations as was Doctorow. Sadly, they both died before breaking through. The first is primarily a sci-fi guy, the second a historical novelist.

      Simply because I’m a realist writer with strong dirty realist tendencies doesn’t mean that I don’t get other kinds of great writing when I see it. I could easily see an argument for Douglas Adams were he, alas, still whinnying with us. Same for Pratchett.

      The selection of Svetlana Alexievich says that the Nobel for Lit has become like the Nobel for Peace – a political football. Is Alexievich a great writer? I’ll let you know in a bit. Is she greater than some of those passed over like Rushdie, Handke, Atwood? Oh, hell, no. So why did she get the nod?

      Ask Putin….