THE LIT PRIZE
Now that I am officially retired, one of the traditions I will miss is acting as a bookie and taking bets from my students on the Nobel Lit Prize winner! Actually, no money ever changed hands, but there were prizes for any or all who predicted the honoree accurately (sometimes the prize was a copy of a book signed for me by a Nobel-winning author!). I would post the list of the favorites each year, and that provided me an "in" to talk a little about how writers and their works were evaluated and assessed and occasionally even dismissed or overlooked. As I write this, we are just a day away from this year's announcement in Stockholm.
Here is the list of betting favorites at gambling sites:
Nobel Prize in Literature Odds
Can Xue – 4/1
Jon Fosse – 5/1
Gerald Murnane – 7/1
Anne Carson – 9/1
Ludmila Ulitskaja – 11/1
Mircea Cărtărescu – 11/1
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – 11/1
Thomas Pynchon – 11/1
César Aira – 14/1
Haruki Murakami – 14/1
Michel Houellebecq – 14/1
Pierre Michon – 14/1
Raul Zurita – 14/1
Salman Rushdie – 14/1
Jamaica Kincaid – 17/1
Ko Un – 17/1
Maryse Condé – 17/1
Helle Helle – 19/1
Karl Ove Knausgård – 19/1
Edna O’Brien – 29/1
Elena Poniatowska – 29/1
Homero Aridjis – 29/1
Joyce Carol Oates – 29/1
László Krasznahorkai – 29/1
Margaret Atwood – 39/1
Paul Simon – 49/1
Stephen King – 49/1
There are alternate lists, but the one above is typical. Many of the names have appeared for a number of years--even decades. A few names have risen to the top of the list just in the last few years. Jon Fosse was a 16-1 choice last year, for instance, and is now a top pick. Stephen King was a 10-1 favorite last year but has plummeted in this year's calculations.
Robert Coover, a 12-1 betting choice in 2022, has fallen off the list altogether! He's 91! How much change could there have been in his body of work?! There are few organizations more rife with the stench of politics than the Literature Panel for the Nobel Prize. From 1995 to 2011, almost every winner was from a single continent--Europe. A correction of that seeming bias seemed in order.
There have always been controversies. I remember when Dario Fo won in 1997. There was an uproar. The Academy lovingly compared his work to those of "jesters in the Middle Ages". His plays and revue sketches, absurdist, comic, and anarchic, tweaked the international establishment and were universally mounted and loved. No less than the Vatican, though, condemned one of his works as "the most blasphemous show in the history of television"!
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won in 1970 and the Soviet Union implied that if he traveled to Stockholm to collect his prize, he would not be able to return to his homeland. His work was largely read in "underground" editions because the Kremlin finally realized that his massive novels skewered Soviet bureaucracies, and so they wouldn't allow general publication.
The list below includes dozens of authors who are not read at all in high school or even in college or graduate school. Many of these authors' works are no longer shelved in public libraries and cannot be found in bookstores (if any of those quaint emporia remain). I would ask my students why works deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize should be forgotten within a lifetime or two. Even the writers' names would spark no recollection in the minds of many learned readers today. Should we all make an attempt to go back and reclaim these masterpieces as was done with the works of Herman Melville when he was almost swept away into the dustbin of history? Perhaps leaving us more baffled is the long list of authors who did not win the Nobel Prize when the Academy's panel must surely have considered them. They include: Henry James, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust, R. K. Narayan, Henrik Ibsen, Vladimir Nabokov, W.H. Auden, and Anton Chekhov. If you asked most authorities to name the greatest novelist ever, it's likely that Leo Tolstoy would be at or near the top of the list. He, too, was eligible but never selected. It's too late now because the award is only given to authors who are still living. So, it was "yes" to some of the long-forgotten authors below, and "no" to Tolstoy!
I had long felt that Graham Greene was deserving, but year after year he would be bypassed. He never won. He had promoted R. K. Narayan as worthy for many years. Narayan never won. Now I feel strongly that Tom Stoppard should be the honoree after sixty years of wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious, philosophical, and poignant plays. But as you can see above, he isn't even on the shortlist. I was ecstatic in 2005 when Harold Pinter won. I had long felt uncomfortable telling my students to select Pinter's plays to analyze on their AP Exams because I knew that many of the AP readers would dismiss Pinter as not a worthy author (nowadays, of course, students are free to write about any book they have read and not be concerned about finding a work deemed of "comparable merit" to the literary suggestions made by the College Board). Once Pinter won the Nobel, however, his name took on a cachet that made even his shopping lists "works of comparable merit"! That was the power of the Nobel Prize.
Other controversial winners include Peter Handke (2019), who came out in support of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia's genocidal treatment of Bosnia in the 1990s. Gunter Grass, the German author of The Tin Drum, seemed a very worthy winner, but when he acknowledged in his memoir that he had been a member of the Hitler Youth, it created an uproar. Just a few years ago, Bob Dylan was tapped for the honor, and many conventional critics' heads exploded--a folk/pop singer?! But few could argue his universal impact. Two awards were given in 2019 because there had been a sex scandal in the Academy and they had to forego the 2018 honor!
So, take a look at the list below:
Nobel Prize in Literature
Nobel Prize winners by category (literature). The Nationality given is the citizenship of the recipient at the time the award was made. Prizes may be withheld or not awarded in years when no worthy recipient can be found or when the world situation (e.g., World Wars I and II) prevents the gathering of information needed to reach a decision. **Prize awarded in 2019.
1903Bjørnstjerne Martinius BjørnsonNorwaynovelist, poet, dramatist
1907Rudyard KiplingU.K.poet, novelist
1908Rudolf Christoph EuckenGermanyphilosopher
1910Paul Johann Ludwig von HeyseGermanypoet, novelist, dramatist
1916Verner von HeidenstamSwedenpoet
1918Erik Axel Karlfeldt (declined)Swedenpoet
1919Carl SpittelerSwitzerlandpoet, novelist
1922Jacinto Benavente y MartínezSpaindramatist
1923William Butler YeatsIrelandpoet
1924Władysław Stanisław ReymontPolandnovelist
1925George Bernard ShawIrelanddramatist
1931Erik Axel Karlfeldt (posthumous award)Swedenpoet
1933Ivan Alekseyevich BuninU.S.S.R.poet, novelist
1937Roger Martin du GardFrancenovelist
1939Frans Eemil SillanpääFinlandnovelist
1944Johannes V. JensenDenmarknovelist
1947André GideFrancenovelist, essayist
1948T.S. EliotU.K.poet, critic
1952François MauriacFrancepoet, novelist, dramatist
1953Sir Winston ChurchillU.K.historian, orator
1956Juan Ramón JiménezSpainpoet
1957Albert CamusFrancenovelist, dramatist
1958Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (declined)U.S.S.R.novelist, poet
1964Jean-Paul Sartre (declined)Francephilosopher, dramatist
1965Mikhail Aleksandrovich SholokhovU.S.S.R.novelist
1967Miguel Ángel AsturiasGuatemalanovelist
1969Samuel BeckettIrelandnovelist, dramatist
1970Aleksandr Isayevich SolzhenitsynU.S.S.R.novelist
1972Heinrich BöllWest Germanynovelist
1978Isaac Bashevis SingerU.S.novelist
1981Elias CanettiBulgarianovelist, essayist
1982Gabriel García MárquezColombianovelist, journalist, social critic
1983Sir William GoldingU.K.novelist
1986Wole SoyinkaNigeriadramatist, poet
1987Joseph BrodskyU.S.poet, essayist
1989Camilo José CelaSpainnovelist
1990Octavio PazMexicopoet, essayist
1991Nadine GordimerSouth Africanovelist
1992Derek WalcottSaint Luciapoet
1997Dario FoItalydramatist, actor
2000Gao XingjianFrancenovelist, dramatist
2001Sir V.S. NaipaulTrinidadnovelist
2003J.M. CoetzeeSouth Africanovelist
2004Elfriede JelinekAustrianovelist, dramatist
2008Jean-Marie Gustave Le ClézioFrancenovelist, essayist
2010Mario Vargas LlosaPerunovelist, dramatist
2012Mo YanChinanovelist, short-story writer
2013Alice MunroCanadashort-story writer
2015Svetlana AlexievichBelarusjournalist, prose writer
2016Bob DylanU.S.singer, songwriter
2018**Olga TokarczukPolandnovelist, poet, essayist
2019Peter HandkeAustrianovelist, poet, essayist, playwright
2022Annie ErnauxFrancenovelist, memoirist
I always talked about the American honorees to my classes, figuring that they should at least be familiar with great artists from their own country. Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, and Pearl Buck all won in the 1930s. For decades, Buck was the only female American honoree, and O'Neill remains the only American playwright, though some others have dabbled with drama. Faulkner and Hemingway took the prize in the 40s and 50s. Faulkner's reception speech was so highly regarded that it was published itself! John Steinbeck won in the 1960s. In 1976, I was elated to learn that Saul Bellow had been selected, as I was just completing my Master's thesis on his novels. It felt like a validation of sorts. There have been a few American honorees who really belong to other countries but who were living in America at the time of their selection. They include Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 and Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Czeslaw Milosz couldn't get his works published in Poland while it was behind the Iron Curtain, so he published his works in Polish from America during the two decades prior to his award as an "American" author in 1980. On the other hand, St. Louis-born T.S. Eliot, perhaps the most influential poet of the 20th Century, is considered a British honoree because he renounced his American citizenship in his late thirties. Hard to pretend that his American roots didn't play a profound role in his work though. Toni Morrison took the prize in the 90s. And in recent years Bob Dylan and Louise Gluck have received the Nobel distinction.
I have been fortunate enough to meet a few Nobel recipients. I met Saul Bellow in 1999 at the JFK Library in Boston during the Hemingway Centennial Conference. My boss called me up to a short line queuing before the master, and I asked Bellow to sign a few first editions I had brought with me. Bellow was embarrassed that everyone was paying attention to him when there were other Nobel winners nearby. He introduced me to the person sitting next to him--Derek Walcott, the 1992 recipient. I had no first editions of Walcott's works. It's funny, in retrospect, that now Walcott is probably taught more widely on college campuses than Bellow is. I also met Nadine Gordimer on multiple occasions. She is, perhaps, the dean of South African fiction, especially focusing on the inequities of the Apartheid era in South Africa. In addition, I saw Harold Pinter perform on the stage during a Lincoln Center tribute in 2000.
I have taught the works of many of the award-winners. The Prize has occasionally prompted me to check out a writer with whom I am not especially familiar. Nevertheless, I will be pulling for Tom Stoppard tomorrow morning but expecting someone I have never heard of and will head to Amazon to remedy the situation!
Update: Well, Jon Fosse took the prize this year. Here is a brief interview with the honoree: