The Nobel Prize people really should hand out their annual prize for literature on Groundhog Day. True, the outcome changes every year, but the run-up to the announcement, at least in the U.S., is dismally the same.
“When will Philip Roth win?” has been the question since 1993, when Toni Morrison became the last American to win the prize.
At this point, I doubt even Roth cares. (OK, he probably cares a little bit.) But his partisans care deeply, and they grumble loudly every year he’s overlooked. (If I were the grumbling sort, I’d whine about Thomas Pynchon getting stiffed, but that’s just me.)
But, as the Nobel officials are fond of reminding us, it’s a big world out there, and there are dozens if not hundreds of qualified authors, i.e., writers who are not named Roth or Pynchon or DeLillo. In other words, shut up, America.
Maybe if Americans were more passionate about the outcome, we’d have a better chance. In England, where they will bet on anything, odds get posted on the likely candidates, and people wage real money on the outcome.
This year the frontrunner is the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, an investigative journalist and oral historian whose books about women, Chernobyl, and the Soviet-Afghan war compose, in her words, a “history of human feelings” in post-Soviet Russia. The betting firm Ladbrokes posts her chances at 3/1. Haruki Murakami and Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o come in at 6/1, and Jon Fosse, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roth are all 10/1.
But while Americans have nothing against betting, they’d clearly rather throw away their money on something besides literature. Maybe the Nobel judges have taken note of our indifference.
When it comes to handicapping winners, I am at something of a disadvantage in all this because first, I have no idea what Alfred Nobel meant in his will when he said the winner in literature should be someone who wrote “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” I suspect this means someone who writes serious works of moral and ethical uplift. Maybe I’m wrong, but you’ll notice that funny writers never make the cut (and Roth, while he gave it up a long time ago, once wrote very funny novels). Second, I have no favorite in this—to call it what it is—horse race.
More precisely, I refuse to pick one. I think literary contests of any sort are at least a little silly, since they imply a system by which writers are graded against each other, when clearly what makes a writer great is that he or she is nothing like anyone else. It’s a little like picking among Dobermans and goldfish and pillow mints.
The anarchist in me is happiest when someone I’ve never heard of wins. And if that author is talented, that’s the best lagniappe of all.
Last year it was France’s Patrick Modiano, and I have spent the year since catching up on what I’d missed: a terrific series of terse noir-drenched novels that blend mystery fiction and surrealism. It’s as though Camus, Chandler, Borges, and maybe Henri the cat all collaborated on some unlikely but yet inevitable hybrid form. These are droll, often creepy stories full of mysterious strangers, enigmatic police interrogations, even amnesiac protagonists—constantly verging on parody, they employ the shopworn tropes of old B-movies and pulp fiction in the service of something far more dreamlike and haunting.
So, whatever reservations I may harbor about the Nobel Prize, I have to admit that without the intercession of the committee, I might have missed Modiano entirely. For that I’m genuinely grateful.
I do wish the Nobel committee was a little less PC and not so humorless when it comes to picking winners. And I applaud the insistence on casting a wide net and the willingness to reward deserving authors even when—especially when—they are unknown to English-speaking readers.
That said, there are times when I do wish Roth would win. Then at least we could move on and start criticizing the Nobel committee for ignoring some other American author.