No American has Received the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1993. Why Not?

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York. His answer to the question was published in Salon before this year’s winner, the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, was announced.

Here are some excerpts:

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy, deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular,” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”

Boy, were we upset. Over at Slate, Adam Kirsch penned a seething essay declaring that “the Nobel committee has no clue about American literature,” arguing that Philip Roth should have won the prize. New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lecture.” He added John Updike (then living) and Don DeLillo to the mix of worthy laureates.

It’s true that the Academy, like any body of judges, has made some ill-informed decisions. And they’ve not done themselves any favors with some George W. Bush-era selections that plainly had more to do with politics than literature.

In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter fulminated during his Nobel lecture about “the crimes of the United States” with all the embarrassing authority of a college freshman who just discovered Howard Zinn. In 2007, the prize was given to South African novelist Doris Lessing, who called 9/11 “neither as terrible nor extraordinary as [Americans] think.”

That only fed the vitriol directed at Stockholm, obscuring a valid point about American letters: we’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers.

Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen. Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 – and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet émigré he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada.

But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th – or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark – or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” You struggle through Beloved, but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before. Can you honestly say that about Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys?

Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas – but it’s been 38 years since Gravity’s Rainbow, and his career since then has been a chiaroscuro patchwork of brilliance (Mason & Dixon) and frustrating arcana (Against the Day).

Our great writers choose…self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you – never dream of doing what William Styron did in The Confessions of Nat Turner, putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists – even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with The Intuitionist and John Henry Days but his last novel, Sag Harbor, was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in Netherland with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage – though a courage of a special kind – to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

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4 responses to “No American has Received the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1993. Why Not?

  1. I believe that there should be no shame in or regret about not receiving a Nobel, prizes like or honours such as a knighthood or appointment to an Order. They are all inherently descriminatory and the result of fallible judgment. For every winner of the honour there are a large number of possible candidates who are equally or even more deserving.

  2. Indeed they do. I didn’t mean to suggest that the prize does not recognize and reward excellence but only that a hopeful candidate need not interpret failure to receive one as an opinion that his or her contribution was less than that of the winner.

    • Surely a judgment that A wins and B does not is an opinion of the judge that B’s contribution was less than that of A. I think your better point is that the opinion of any particular judge, even the Nobel Committee, is fallible and not definitive. (OTOH the Pulitzer committee have made some really odd choices in recent years…)

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