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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