No American Author Should Win the Nobel Prize

It’s been 20 years since the U.S. has claimed the world’s top book prize. With apologies to Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and even Bob Dylan, we should hope the shutout continues

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Bob Dylan arrives prior to receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 29, 2012

Let me begin by saying that I love Bob Dylan. I’m a huge fan. I know all the words to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and I still—even now, in 2013—like the way he sings. But I do not think Bob Dylan should get this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. In fact, I don’t think any American writer should get this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Here’s why.

The Nobel was established in 1901 by the will of Alfred Nobel, who stipulated that part of his estate be dedicated to rewarding annually “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Let’s take a moment to marvel that this vague directive from Scandinavia somehow morphed into the world’s superpower of literary prizes. The Pulitzer, also founded by last will and testament at the beginning of the 20th century, has nothing on it. The Booker Prize can hire as many celebrity judges as it likes and still can’t touch it. Those prizes are awarded to a single book. The Nobel honors the person and his or her whole oeuvre, the choice of theme and subject over decades, the entire arc of a career. It’s a lifetime achievement award with a huge purse to boot. Who wouldn’t want her favorite writer to get it?

Well, my perennial pick was Chinua Achebe, and he died this year, so I will seek justice from whatever Swedes I happen to encounter in the next world. But meanwhile I am baffled by the chorus that rises with every autumnal equinox, of American critics lobbying for American writers. They lobby for Philip Roth. They lobby for Joyce Carol Oates. They lobby for Bob Dylan. These are fine writers, all of them, and at least one of them can sing, and patriotism is a virtue. But the Nobel is not a moment for American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it’s one of the few occasions when we Americans can trust to not have our own cultural products lobbed back to us. We should hope to be served something different.

(PHOTOS: A Year and a Day with Bob Dylan)

Alfred Nobel, according to the official Nobel website, had a rich and varied library, full of books in many languages. 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.

We’ve done well over the years, with our share of Mr. Nobel’s estate: 12 American laureates (depending on how you count a few expatriates), including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison. We have a lot to be proud of. We also have a lot to be curious about, and that’s why I’m looking forward to not hearing the name Roth, Oates or Dylan on Thursday morning. Ultimately, the idea that the biggest superpower in the world doesn’t dominate the biggest prize in the world might drive some people nuts. But the fact that that prize comes out of Sweden is one of the great accidents of cultural history. I for one am grateful for it.

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38 comments
ForestVanhelde
ForestVanhelde

The only one who should have won it was the author of "The Polity of Beasts."  Too bad he died earlier this year.  His literary executor has found two large boxes of manuscripts that are currently being edited.  His star will rise in the coming years.

MarkDawson1
MarkDawson1

I blame American publishers who refused to publish "real literature" and instead look for "trash novels" to make profits.

ThomasMurphy1
ThomasMurphy1

I agree with the theme of the work but not the conclusion in the title.  The United States promotes writing as a career and that means that those who study writing create formulaic works of writing.  Writing that is based on a formula rather than a conscious stream from the soul of a human being.  What the formulaic writing has transgressed to is creating formulaic works based on the demonized souls or "Scribed" souls of Human Beings.  There are Americans who have the writing talent and ability to win that prize but they are discouraged from writing or perfecting their writing, because their human souls make great "templates."  Full disclosure: my novel is titled "The Voyage of the Cauldron Skipper"  All a writer really ever needs to write is the basic skills he/she learned in grade school and a wealth of "enriched" personal experience.

FredMecklenburg
FredMecklenburg

This is a good commentary, that really harks back to a time when popular opinion columns could also be thought-provoking and challenge the readerships' (sometimes provincial) opinions. I love Dylan's work as well, but really, he is already recognized and appreciated by serious literary people everywhere. A Nobel won't add to his stature, anymore than it would have to James Joyce, Tolstoy, or Mark Twain, none of whom got the nod. Likewise, the failure to award Achebe says more about the award committee than it does Achebe's work, which will continue to speak for itself down the ages.

NaideAyido
NaideAyido

Great observation Ms. Jones! Our greatness can sometimes become domineering. As Americans, if we desire to win every time, then we should limit the Nobel Prize nominations at the national level only. As long as we open it to the world, we should make room for foreign geniuses and expect to pass the torch at times. If America were to birth the greatest writers the world had to offer, then Victor Hugo, Chinua Achebe, Jean Baptist Poquelin, William Shakespeare would have been Americans. Let's lobby for great literature regardless of the country of origin. 

liamnoon4
liamnoon4

Hey, Saul Bellow was Canadian. Stop stealing our laureates, we don't have that many.... :-)

awood0813
awood0813

I think some of you need to work on your reading comprehension.  Nowhere in this article does she say American authors should be blackballed or banned from winning the Nobel Prize.  She is simply saying that if an American does not win, we should not look at it as a slight against American exceptionalism, but rather take it as an opportunity to expand our horizons and read books from authors who would otherwise be unknown to Americans because we already have such a deep pocket of literary talent that publishers don't bother bringing their work over.  She is saying instead of just rooting for your favorite author, because they are your favorite author, you should be excited about the new ideas and works that will be brought to your attention because an American did not win.

Radhika is saying that she hopes that an American does not win because she wants to be exposed to other amazing writers who would otherwise be overlooked.  She is not saying this because she is looking down her nose at other Americans or that she is condemning their success. 

Instead of looking to be outraged, take your blinders off and actually read the article.

MichaelSweden
MichaelSweden

Radhika Jones sort of answer people that think that USA should win the Nobel Prize a lot more often. In short she embraces the diversity that consists of authors from a lot of different countries, some well known others not. Let's stay positive, she says. And why is the prize not an American prize? She answers: "that prize comes out of Sweden is one of the great accidents of cultural history". She sort of echos the NY Review of Books in 2011, that write: Do We Need the Nobel?. This article is saying, it is so complicated to select a writer for the prize, surely it is impossible. The prize is not needed. 

What is brewing under this discussion which on the surface is about complexity, and the description of the oddity that it is a Swedish prize is really about something else: ENVY, american envy.

MaryMiller3
MaryMiller3

As to the 20 years since Americans have won a Nobel Prize for writing....what is the problem with that? I love the Nobel Prize committee for putting books in my hands I may not have heard of otherwise. We do not have to win everything every time. I did not hear anyone complaining.

MaryMiller3
MaryMiller3

Seriously? This person believes all American writers should be blackballed from the possibility of winning a Nobel Prize because we are a super power? How is it possible that WHERE you are born negates any possibility of earning a Nobel Prize for writing?     Jones says ---our literary culture hasn’t embraced the world beyond our borders---???  Our borders encase immigrants from all parts of the globe. Does this writer understand that the reason we do not have a unified cultural response to one particular song (as is the case in many other nations of the world) is because we all claim ancestry from all over the world. The majority of Germans were born there, and Frenchmen, and Italians. We are not like that. I feel the writer of this article should take off her blinders and stop allowing her national self-hatred to color her opinions. America has produced some of the finest writers in the world....calling out only the names of those she describes as ex-patriots does not negate that they rose to prominence from these shores.

I am really disgusted with the way we Americans look down our noses at our own efforts. If someone becomes super successful instead of applauding that success we immediately begin to condemn. There are no Horatio Algiers allowed to rise in America. Any other nation would embrace true success...not us. 

I am a reader. I read everything I get my hands on. I do not look to see what the nationality is of the author before I begin a book. I do not consider national origin before I decide if the book was well written or not.  I read.

 

Read more: http://entertainment.time.com/2013/10/09/no-american-author-should-win-the-nobel-prize/#ixzz2hKECnJGF

KevinRussellAnderson
KevinRussellAnderson

I wonder if even after we lose our "superpower" status (good riddance, by the way), it will be so fashionable to hate on Americans. As a white American male who enjoys writing, this is terribly discouraging. If a white American male writes something that is globally stimulating, are you suggesting that he should not win the prize solely because of his birth certificate, skin color, and gender? Are we that incapable of being globally minded? I'm still waiting for my American privilege prize to show up any day now. So far, all I've received is a lot of assumptions about my opinions and ideologies.

I was rooting for Murakami anyway.

scott715
scott715

Radhika Jones and the Nobel committee are equally asinine in saying that no American could or should win the literature prize. All writers no matter where they are from write from the perspective of their experience in their own homeland. They are just as insular and isolated as Americans so what these people are really expressing is a distate for and a bigotry towards Americans. Solzhenitzin wrote from a particulary Soviet point of view and never wrote about being a cowboy in Patagonia so I guess that makes him insular as well. You can speak about universal truths but from the perspective of your own experience and background. This is pure and simple prejudice because so much of American culture has come to dominate world and especially entertainment culture.

nyucanadian22
nyucanadian22

Some have accused the Committee of being anti-American for pointing out supposed "insularity"...but what if this view is true?   What if Americans ARE insular and primarily (or solely) read American works by American authors?  Reading some of the comments below it seems as if many truly believe that Americans are the best writers simply because they (and the commenters below responding) are both American.  

I think the article's writer is merely saying that this international prize gives Americans, often self-focused (or narrowly-focused) on American authors and American lives (an accusation leveled against Roth's writing, too, by critics) rather than larger human qualities like emotions, loneliness and self-deception.  I have enjoyed Roth and Toni Morrison, but am always aware that their writing is about "America"...when I read Alice Munro or Nadine Gordimer or Doris Lessing or Chinua Achebe, I sense a comment on the HUMAN condition, rather than just the American condition...this is the distinction, I think. 

AndersonBrown
AndersonBrown

Unfortunately at least one member of the committee went on record saying that US literature was insular and not part of the global conversation.  So one cannot have faith in the judgement of the committee.  They are, apparently, anti-American reactionaries.  The only American who ought to get the Nobel right now is Phillip Roth, by the way.

mizlplix
mizlplix

What a self-important twit.  TIME just got a subscription dropped.

freddbase
freddbase

Americn Literature is substandard, self-important, and essentially run by white males giving out prizes to Native Americans, South Americans, Mexicans and Latinos.  Reverse discrimination?  No....egomaniacal elitism wrapped in a dead tree.

mick666
mick666

I like this essay, it's stimulating & funny, and as for Bob on Nobel prize day:

Here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice

firefly212
firefly212

"We should hope to be served something different."

So we should judge them not on the basis of their writing, but on the basis of their nationality, or their popularity... I think this author completely misunderstands the point of the Nobel Laureate selection. Injecting this kind of prejudice, whether it be because of Anti-Americanism, or just that hipsterish "I love X, but you wouldn't know them" attitude is totally contrary to the goals of the Nobel Foundation.

dvfinnh
dvfinnh

A column such as this provided the author a platform to promote the work of some writers that only few Americans know, even if the Swedish academy chooses to do otherwise tomorrow.  But the author only drops famous names.  What a waste of ink.

VisnuGD
VisnuGD

This write should be ashamed of himself, calling out for a total shutout of Americans winning the Nobel price is just an insult. Time should do better when picking their journalists or CLOWNS like this fellow. If it hurts you we have the best Literates, then my friend dig a hole and crawl under it.

LeeBropniz
LeeBropniz

The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown

LeeBropniz
LeeBropniz

Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you’re sick of all this repetition
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

LeeBropniz
LeeBropniz

Don’t say I never warned you
When your train gets lost

Sherm
Sherm

"monolingual American"?  Hello, we're a nation of immigrants and many languages are spoken here.  Also, you just insulted everyone in Puerto Rico.

Azrimgiab
Azrimgiab

I did not know Time Magazine employed trolls. This article is a sad attempt to incite American book lovers. The writer should be ashamed.

JuanIsidro
JuanIsidro

But the Nobel is not a moment for American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it's one of the few occasions when we Americans can trust to not have our own cultural products lobbed back to us. We should hope to be served something different.

So the Nobel is not a moment for American exceptionalism, but it should serve to provide Americans with new stuff to read? So...it IS a moment for American exceptionalism... 

-_______-'

Breakouts like Roberto Bolano and Stieg Larsson are rare exceptions to this rule.

Heh, funny (well, sad) that they both died from heart attacks at the cusp of their careers.

ocayaro
ocayaro

What utter stupidity. Deny a well deserved prize to anyone and you deride the prize. It is like saying exclude the Kenyans from marathons because they'll win all the trophies. By the way, I am not American. Radhika Jones, for your information articles such as yours incite hatred and segregation and therefore border on hate speech.

lucasdixon_
lucasdixon_

How is 7 Nobel Lit prizes for Sweden not insane to you? There are something like 8 and a half million Swedish speakers. We're looking at close to a 1 Nobel prize per million or so of people. Not to say that each of those winners wasn't deserving; I haven't read works by all of them, though I'm sure they're stellar. But of course this is a national competition, just like the Olympics and everything else. I'm Canadian and I spend every year hoping we'll get the prize -- we don't have a single one! -- for Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood. The United States just has a larger echo chamber, so of course it's going to seem like 'people' only root for American writers... Everyone wants their own country's writers to win!

ajfinken
ajfinken

The literature prize should be country-blind.  Simple.

Dude101589
Dude101589

This is cultural elitism at its very finest. "I know everything about all of the Americans and so do many of my peers. Therefore, I want an obscure (to the US population) writer to win so I can humble brag to all of my friends about how I read them first."  Seems like a fairly self-absorbed reason to be rooting against the Americans.

falcon269
falcon269

Ah. A burn from a "Time" writer. "Life," the magazine for people who cannot read. "Time," the magazine for people who cannot think. How many Noble Prize writers from "Time" columnists? Isn't it zero?

ReadingComprehensionFTW
ReadingComprehensionFTW

@liamnoon4 Fulll blooded Russian Jew born in Quebec, moved to Chicago at age 9. Spent his entire career in the US.  Naturalized US citizen. Yup. Just a an average guy from America's Hat.

MaryMiller3
MaryMiller3

@ocayaro I agree with you totally. Americans are not one race-we are not one people. We are unique in that we are made up of people from all over the world. Once they become citizens they are ours. How is it possible to make such a statement about a country that is so completely diverse? The answer is that we are so full of self-loathing right now. anti-American sentiments run as high within as they do without right now. It is sad. Our founding fathers considered our country to be a grand experiment. It is. Yes, we have issues, now more than ever but where else are folks from anywhere and everywhere in the world so welcome? We are the world in very real ways. To deny that an American writer is so insulated from the world is - thoughtless and shows a lack of respect for who and what average America really is. Literally every single day I overhear conversations in languages I cannot identify from citizens.

nyucanadian22
nyucanadian22

@ocayaro But is it "deserved" solely because Americans think their own authors are deserving?  Your analogy to Kenyan runners being excluded from marathons is flawed, also--Kenyans have PROVEN on a global stage that they are exceptional marathon runners...where is the proof that American authors are exceptional writers, other than Americans INSISTING it is so?  Of course people are pleased when a countryman/woman wins a prestigious prize (Yay, Alice Munro!), but I would never think of it being anti-Canadian when someone is passed over...strange that Americans see it this way, or that they cannot react to potentially legitimate criticism of their writers.

Adle
Adle

^ American