Nobel Prize in Literature

The intimidating Nobel Prize for Literature.  My goals to read some of the winners’ work has been frustrated numerous times due to the often dense writing and weighty themes.  Nevertheless, I enjoy getting to know the writers — seems many of them win for the biography as much as for their bibliography.  Good luck to all of you who have the goal to get to know the Nobels.

Click here for a list of past winners.

35 thoughts on “Nobel Prize in Literature

  1. Let’s start the discussion with this link to the New York Times.

    Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy, said that American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” And also, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

    Sure, that’s definitely present here. Perhaps it’s very present here, somehow shadowing the more brilliant American writers, who, in my opinion, match with any writers in the world. But I haven’t read all of the writers in the world, so I’m not the best source of information.

    Whatever the thoughts on the statement, however, it doesn’t bode well for my favorite perrenial name: Philip Roth. I would like to know how Roth, McCarthy, Delilo, Updike, etc. fit into that nice mould Engdahl describes. They’re definitely read beyond these borders.

    As for the fact that America doesn’t translate enough . . . that certainly says something about the general literariness of the average American, but does that really mean that our best authors are on a second-tier, thus undeserving of the Nobel Prize? I don’t see the connection. I mean, do the countries who produce winners alwasy involve themselves in the literary world as a precondition to producing their Nobel laureatte? Kertesz wasn’t even read in his own country. Pamuk gets threats from his government.

    I take this as a slam to America in general, which is all fine if that’s the way Engdahl feels. But surely some of our best authors do not deserve that indictment.

  2. I’d sure love a chance to bet against Roth and Oates — give me 1/7 and I am pretty much certain that I would have a sure thing.

    While he certainly does not succeed in making the point, there is some sense in what Engdahl talks about — a lot of American fiction (Roth, Updike and Delillo for sure) is very inward looking, about the environment in which the authors live. Given that it is the world’s only superpower, at least for another week or so, that is only natural. One of the things that the Nobel has done is toacknowledge writers, like say Malouf or Coetzee or even Pinter, who acquaint us with their environment, to the betterment of those of us who don’t share it. Far from being insular and isolated, don’t these American authors try to explain to those of us in the rest of the world what this strange country, the U.S. of A., is about. And judging from the posts from readers outside America on Trevor’s various Roth books, they seem to succeed.

    I’m no fan of what is currently happening in the United States. But I think it is ludicrous to criticize these novelists for trying to explain that to us. As I said in another post, the Nobel has never been high on my list for identifying promising authors. It has certainly fallen even further with this little outburst.

  3. I agree with you on all counts, Kevin.

    I usually try to check out a book or two by the author who wins. Interestingly, I usually get more of a kick out of learning about the author and his or her background and politics than I do from the book itself.

  4. What is interesting about that interview is that it has dropped totally out of site — I think a revelation that the Nobel is a marginal prize.

  5. That is true, Kevin. I wonder, though, when did this happen? In my mind the Nobel used to be a prize many people paid attention to. I can’t go so far as to say that it is because of the authors who’ve won over the last 20 years. Many of them, in my mind, are deserving, and I’ve enjoyed their books.

    Is it a reflection of my own culture here in the U.S.? I know that most poeple here don’t pay attention at all, to many things of this nature. Are we so insular that this prize is just a small article the day it’s announced where it’s an event in other areas? But then again, is it also or rather a reflection of the prize over the years? If so, what?

    I find this sad. I do like being exposed to authors I otherwise never would have found.

  6. I think the Nobel is pretty marginal, I’m not sure when that happened but I don’t think it’s recent either. That’s sad, but I’m not sure it’s been well promoted and comments like that you quote don’t help.

    I’m British, not American, so I have no particular horse in this race. That said, the idea that American literature is not vibrant and that it does not produce some of the finest literature in the world is a nonsense, the accusation of insularity more a comment on the speaker than the works.

    Kevin is quite right that it’s natural for many writers to engage with the societies that produce them, I wholly fail to see why that’s laudable in a Junichiro Tanizaki or a Naguib Mahfouz (the latter of which I haven’t read yet sadly) but not in a Roth or Delillo.

    Engdahl is in my view America bashing, which is a popular sport at present due to the unpopularity of a range of current US policies, not one of which has anything to do with literature. Where a writer is connected with practices one deplores, that can raise difficult issues (I recently learnt that Luigi Barzini was an apologist for the corrupt Italian government of the First World War, which has destroyed him for me as an essayist since I no longer have trust in his work) but where the writer is unconnected with or even opposes the policies of his government it seems bizarre to condemn that writer for those policies.

    Where I’m more disappointed was that I had found the Booker quite good for introducing new and interesting novelists, but this year’s list seems to mark a move to populism which I’m not sure is for the good of the prize. The Nobel, possibly unjustly, has never really been on my personal radar. Who actually makes the selection? Are the judges drawn from the literary world, and if so from which literary world? Any enlightenment you can shed Trevor?

  7. Though I didn’t know this until you asked the question, Max, it appears that it is quite an extensive process, beginning very early in the year when the Swedish Academy solicits proposals from a variety of sources, including members of all sorts of literature academies, previous Nobel laureates, professors, etc. Wikipedia says that about 50 proposals are sent to the Academy by February 1. Then the Academy gets to work, narrowing that list to twenty by April and then to five shortly thereafter. Then the Academy reads the works by the five or so candidates, finally making the decision by the date of the announcement. Here is the information the Nobel page offers(click here). This is an interesting page with some information about specific nominees.

    This year, according the NY Times article, they still hadn’t made a decision as to who the winner would be. We’ll probably know soon though!

    Incidentally, the Wikipedia article also informed me that the original goal of the prize was to award outstanding work “of an idealistic tendancy.” Apparently this was taken quite seriously at the beginning and that’s why Tolstoy, James, Ibsen, and I’m assuming Joyce never got the prize. The cite says that more recently the definition has broadened to include works that might not seem idealistic themselves but the spirit behind them is: i.e. human rights on a broad scale. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry suggests that’s why it has become, some say, more political.

  8. Odds have changed for American authors, despite the comments by Engdahl. Roth and Oates are now at 5/1, Don DeLilo at 7/1. And even Pynchon has moved up to 14/1.

    And who knows? Engdahl is a voting member, but only one of eighteen. We’ll see on Thursday how this all plays out.

  9. As for the fact that America doesn’t translate enough . . . that certainly says something about the general literariness of the average American, but does that really mean that our best authors are on a second-tier, thus undeserving of the Nobel Prize? I don’t see the connection.

    I don’t think it was meant to connect. I belive Engdahl was talking about American literature in general, hence why he wasn’t bandying names about, saying “Cormac McCarthy is too insular”, or whatever. There was some interesting thoughts on this topic at the Literary Saloon.

    I would like to see Roth win it, even if I am stalled in his first novel proper (Letting Go) at the moment. But there’s so many more names out there – poets, dramatists, essayists, historians, philosophers, novelists, short story writers – that it’s hard to narrow the field to who will win it. As such the only argument is who we would like to win it.

    Personally, although I’ve never read him (although I have his collected poems in the post), I would like to see the Swedes honour Tomas Tranströmer. They haven’t give the prize to a Scandinavian writer since the controversy back in 1974 where they gave it to Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, themselves sitting on the Swedish Academy. I’d like to think, what with all members of that 1974 Academy now dead, that the Swedes can get over it and award their own once again.

    We’ve got a rather lengthy discussion going on as to who will win it on the World Literature Forum, with all manner of names from around the world being mentioned.

  10. Thanks for the links, Stewart! There definitely are many many deserving writers out there. I guess that’s one problem with the Nobel: to give one award only once per year to a writer from anywhere in the world is basically asking to leave out many deserving writers. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

  11. So I’ve never read anything by the winner this year. To be truthful, I don’t know if I’ve ever even heard of him or one of his books. It’ll take some research for me to figure out what’s available in English and whether it’s known over here. One thing’s for sure, reading this author will give us Americans a chance to be less insular!

  12. Here’s a brief NY Times article that tells a little bit about the man and his work (a very little). Turns out that twelve of his around forty works have been published into English. Click here.

  13. It’ll take some research for me to figure out what’s available in English and whether it’s known over here.

    It’s been done for you, Trevor. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t heard of him either.

    One thing’s for sure, reading this author will give us Americans a chance to be less insular!

    Have you heard of Open Letter Books? They are a relatively new US publisher who only put out work in translation, one book a month, which you can get on a six month subscription basis. I’ve almost finished the first of their offerings, with the second out next week, and I’ve rather enjoyed it. They also have a great blog called Three Percent.

  14. Thanks for the excellent links, Stewart! I’m excited to dig into them a bit more.

    On an administrative note, for some reason when you post to this page I have to approve your comment. I don’t have any restrictions and you post fine on the other pages. If you notice delays, though, it’s not because I’ve put you on any black list!

  15. The comment approval is just because I’ve had two or more links in my comments.

    On the subject of Open Letter, the guy in charge there used to work with Dalkey Archive, itself a quality publisher.

  16. I too haven’t heard of Le Clezio, but I’ll admit that the news articles I have read spark an interest, which I will explore.

    Looks to me like Rob has a French author that he can read on his project.

    I am certainly interested in any thoughts about where to start with this author — I do think that reading at least one or two books is probably worthwhile.

  17. When I first went on to the chapters-indigo site for Le Clezio, there were three books with English translation available — before I finished my order, I got a message that that was down to two. I ordered them and just got an apologetic note saying that sometimes their system is in error and these two are no longer in stock — I’m presuming some book store(s) got to the stock ahead of my order since they come from the same warehouse.

    So I guess I’ll just have to wait some months, and perhaps a new publisher, before I find out about this guy. It’s not like I don’t have anything else to read.

  18. I think it will take me a while to get to Le Clézio too. Unfortunately, that might mean my pile will continue to grow and, as often happens with Nobel winners in my town, prevent me from ever sitting down with him. It’ll take some conscious effort on my part to get to him before the next winner is announced!

  19. Le Clézio’s first novel, The Interrogation is republished on the 9th December. Tomorrow, to you, at the time of writing.

    We’re a bit luckier in the UK in that we had had seven books rushed back to print – in paperback – at the tail end of November. The first one I’ve read, Terra Amata, was a great book, although it required careful reading. It only struck me the day after I read it that he was still in his twenties back then. Wow!

  20. I saw that The Interrogation is out tomorrow, but it’s in hardback. I was pretty jealous of the UK for having not only the books in paperback, but that they are being done by Penguin Modern Classics. You have no idea how much I envy easy access to those editions!

  21. I also noted The New Yorker was quick into the fray with a short story a few weeks ago. It was good but not something that caused me to say “I have to read this guy”. I also note some of the French are not too happy with the choice — although their argument that he writes books that too many people read seems to me to be a bit absurd. (Please note Camus reference.)

  22. It was announced today that the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature will be revealed this Thursday.

    I don’t want to get my hopes too high but, since this morning, Alice Munro has moved up a bit in the Ladbrokes odds…

    Haruki Murakami and Svetlana Alexievich have also jumped up a few places.

  23. With respect to Haruki Murakami, if he were to be given the award over Alice Munro it’d make the whole enterprise a bit laughable. I like Murakami and I’d be delighted for him etc but it’d be a bit like overlooking a Cheever for someone like Charles Yu, another good writer but we’re talking greatness. You can quickly diminish an award.

  24. Hi Trevor – Isn’t Alice Munro’s triumph great?

    I like the implicit recognition given to how much time a story can take a writer to write and how much time a story can take a reader to read.

    She is a woman who has taken a lifetime to write about ordinary people in an extraordinary manner – wrapping story within story within story such that there is never a simple answer but such that our experience of these lives always seems like a vision, an opening up.

    I do look forward to what she chooses to say in her address.

  25. Hi Betsy – this is great news. Do you have any information about the address you mention, like when or where it might be broadcast? I tried to look it up but didn’t see anything. Thanks!

  26. Hi Julie – The Nobel Prize awards ceremonies appear to be on or about December 10 of every year. The William Faulkner address in 1950 is brief and magnificent.

Leave a Reply