An American writer probably won’t get the Nobel tomorrow – and that’s just fine.


Logo_of_the_Nobel_prizeIt’s a few more hours before the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced.  Back in the days when I worked at the Stanford News Service, that meant setting my alarm for the wee hours of the morning to catch the European news, make sure it wasn’t one of “ours,” and then go back to bed. Because it never was.  The News Service got a workout this week with two days of Nobel winners, but I’ll bet everyone has an opportunity to sleep in tomorrow morning.

Two major news outlets, Time and the New Yorker, published stories in the last day explaining why Americans never seem to get the Nobel – or at least not since 1993 when Toni Morrison received the nod.  Radhika Jones over at Time wrote:

“Our literature in America is rich and varied, to be sure, but our sense of the global literary landscape is parochial at best. This is not exactly our fault, unless you think not seeking out foreign literature is our fault. The truth is, there’s so much good writing available in English—thanks in large part to English imperialism of the 18th and 19th century and American cultural imperialism of the 20th century—that we don’t generally feel pressed to find out what writer is big in France or Germany or Argentina or (with the exception of Haruki Murakami) Japan. And publishers don’t feel pressed to introduce those writers to our public. Breakouts like Roberto Bolano and Stieg Larsson are rare exceptions to this rule. It may be true that 1 in 5 Americans now speaks a foreign language at home, but by and large our literary culture hasn’t embraced the world beyond our borders. Foreign language translations comprise less than three percent of new publications in any given year, and that includes new translations of classics like Tolstoy and Stendhal.

“So the second Thursday in October is one of the only days in the year that we get to wake up, take note of the recipient of a giant prize, scratch our heads at this new god of the pantheon and say, Who the hell is that guy? And then find out a little bit about the presiding themes and tropes and tones of the Great Italian Playwright or the Great French Naturalist or the Great Chinese Fabulist, instead of the Great American Novelist. And think about the world from that point of view, instead of from our own—which is, after all, the great disorienting thing that literature helps us do. It’s a humbling and enlightening experience. And as it is, nearly a quarter of Nobel laureates’ works are primarily available to English-language readers: 26 times out of 109, the prize has gone to an English-language writer. That’s quite a panoply of worldviews right there, with writers from Australia (Patrick White), the Caribbean (Derek Walcott), South Africa (J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer) and England (Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Rudyard Kipling), to name just a few—but the point is, even the monolingual American is hardly shut out of the Nobel experience. By comparison, French- and German-language writers have won 13 times each, Spanish 11, Russian 5, Chinese 2, Portuguese 1, and Swedish, despite significant home-court advantage, 7.”


Bellow a winner.

I have a bone to pick with this. I question the alleged “parochialism” of Americans.  Most people in most countries are pretty oblivious to world literature, and also the literature of their own nation, too. Sure, the average man on the U.S. street may not know the current U.S. poet laureate, but I doubt the average English subject could name the current holder of that honor, any more than the average Frenchman knows the members of the Académie Française.  I spent several years living in England, diplomatically correcting its denizens on their own history, culture, and literature – not my own culture, theirs – so I speak with a little authority.  The literary culture of New York is second to none, U.S. academia has nothing in particular to be ashamed about.  Yes, I wish Americans would hit the books, but I also wish they’d get over the national inferiority complex, the constant looking over their shoulders to assess what their neighbors think of them.  It’s embarrassing, and the Jungian shadow to the insistence that we’re the greatest in the world.

I agree with Ian Crouch at the New Yorker:


Steinbeck a winner.

Since 1930, ten other Americans have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, including a few whom [Sinclair Lewis] mentioned in his lecture—O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway. Others, whom he couldn’t have predicted—John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison—have become central writers in a national literary canon worthy of the vastness of this, or any other, country. Still others—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky—came to the United States as adults, and wrote primarily in their native languages, which reflected another step toward cosmopolitanism among American letters. (The work of the other American winner, Pearl Buck, who won the Nobel in 1938, has not aged well, and her award has become a frequently cited example of the committee’s idiosyncratic choices.) Through the twentieth century, the idea of the American literary scene as an overlooked backwater faded, owing to the artistry of these writers and scores of others, but also because the United States became a haven for exiled Europeans during the Second World War and its Cold War aftermath, and, perhaps most especially, because of the economic dominance of the American publishing industry.

Nowadays, New York is the world’s publishing capital for books written in English, and American literature has joined film and music as one of the country’s principal artistic exports.

I understand that we’re second only in Nobel lit awards to France.  There’s nothing to bitch about.  Please everybody. It’s fine. Sleep in.

2 Responses to “An American writer probably won’t get the Nobel tomorrow – and that’s just fine.”

  1. D S Says:

    Don’t worry about it. American literature stands on it’s own feet. There’s always an agenda.

  2. Quid plura? | “The forming of a new connection, to study or to play…” Says:

    […] Cynthia Haven hardly minds when American novelists don’t win the Nobel Prize. […]