Is the Nobel Committee Blackballing American Authors?

It’s been more than two decades since an American took home the Nobel Prize for literature, and some say the snub is no accident.

The Nobel Prize committee has always had—at best—a fraught relationship with the United States when it comes to literature. It took three decades after the prize was formed before a U.S. author won the award, and that writer was Sinclair Lewis, a novelist who spent most of his ink excoriating his own country.

As we are now into the third decade of a similar drought—not since 1993 and Toni Morrison has an American won—it is harder all the time to argue down those who insist the U.S. is being intentionally snubbed.

Indeed, that task was made all but impossible in 2008 after Horace Engdal, then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, declared that “Europe is still the center of the literary world,” and went to say, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

It’s a little hard to know how to interpret that comment, because it sounds like he’s talking about the culture, not about U.S. writers. But if he’s upset with the culture, why take it out on the country’s authors, many of whom would surely agree with his comments.

He’s right about the translation thing, which can’t help but promote a certain insularity. Who knows what he meant by the big dialogue of literature (it just sounds like the intellectual equivalent of bobbing for apples), which perhaps proves his point—Americans do suck when it comes to how much we read: In a recent global survey, we ranked 22nd in the average number of hours spent reading per week, well below the global average. All that aside, there’s no mistaking the animus in Engdal’s statement, nor any reason to suppose that he is alone in his sentiments. So, while the Nobel committee has yet to set a date for any announcement for a literature prize this year (they’ve skipped a few years previously), it does seem unlikely that phones will ring in the homes of Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, or any other U.S. author.

There’s no use complaining about this, at least not publicly, since to whine that you’ve never heard of such and such a winner does indeed seem to confirm that we are “too isolated, too insular.” Worse, complaining suggests that even now we still cravenly seek the cultural approbation of our European betters. Best to say there’s nothing to see here and just move on.

In the past, those with a grudge against the Nobel committee have consoled themselves by pointing out how many times the prize committee got it wrong, or at least failed to recognize greatness. The list of those who failed to win includes Tolstoy, Twain, Woolf, Borges, Proust, Nabokov, Chekhov, Joyce, Waugh, Greene, Welty, Auden, Updike, Stoppard, Pynchon, and Roth. That’s almost enough to make you want to lose.

Nevertheless, in a country that ranks second only to China in the number of books published annually and can claim New York City as the center of the English-speaking publishing world, getting passed over year after year does get a little wearying.

And puzzling. The Swedish Academy is, with the exception of Engdal’s outburst, pretty tight-lipped when it comes to explaining the motives behind its awards. Some losers, like Graham Greene, seem too liberal. Others, like Borges and Stoppard, may be too conservative. It has been suggested that Haruki Murakami does not win because he is too popular. But in any event, it’s hard not to suspect that something besides literary merit guides decisions about the awards.

Lately the forces of globalization have made it even harder for the Nobel committee to take stock of a literary world that seems to grow exponentially overnight every night—and here it’s Engdal and his ilk who look isolated and insular, since arguing that Europe is still the center of anything in a time when talented writers from every continent are turning out books of insanely high quality just seems out of touch. Here at home the upshot of the global boom in writing—and the ease with which we can find it—has been to make it harder all the time to define what “American author” means any longer (and it was never, ever easy). As the literary critic Ian Crouch has pointed out, Philip Roth’s New Jersey is also Junot Diaz’s New Jersey.

It’s never been easy, for us or anyone else, to nail the essence of American literary identity, and that surely has a lot to do with how the U.S. gets overlooked, both in the past and now. For while it is not part of its official brief, the Swedish Academy has always sought to spread the wealth nation by nation when awarding prizes for literature. It’s not like they’re saying, here’s the author who best exemplifies the culture of the country of origin, but they don’t have to with most countries. Patrick Modiano may not speak for France, but there’s no denying that he’s a very, very French author. But how many times do you hear of an author in this multi-culti country called very American. Diversity as an identity is a hard sell. We might do better if we were a monoculture.

U.S. book buyers, at least, settled this argument long ago, or simply decided to ignore it altogether. Publishers and booksellers will tell you that, unlike, say, the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, the Nobel does not greatly improve an author’s chances at the cash register. Partly this has to do with the fact that the authors who win the Nobel are not being awarded for a particular work but for a lifetime of achievement (again, there is nothing in writing that dictates this, it’s just how it seems to happen). That means that the author is probably a little long in the tooth, and he or she has (or has not) already found an audience, an audience not likely to grow appreciably after any kind of late-life acknowledgment.

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Perhaps the only people left who care at all about America’s Nobel curse are op-ed columnists and book critics—in other words, people who will argue about anything and then come back tomorrow and argue the opposite. Which is just about perfect with regard to a literary prize that, through simple longevity and for no other good reason, has become a sort of gold standard. Never mind that the rationale behind the awards is obscure, or that the committee’s track record of hits and misses for those awarded is sketchy at best. For whatever mysterious reasons, this prize carries inexplicable clout.

In Chinatown, Noah Cross observes that politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable with age. Now we can add the Nobel to that list.