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Do American Novelists Even Deserve the Nobel Prize?

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], 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.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.


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