The ongoing travesty of the Nobel Prizes was aggravated again last week …
The Nobel Prize for Literature was given to a European author I’d never heard of.¹ Heck, it was even given to a European author whom the Associated Press, in the Stockholm-datelined early versions of the story, referred to as “little-known,” a very rare thing for the wire service to say:
STOCKHOLM — Herta Mueller, a little-known Romanian-born author who was persecuted for her critical depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday in an award seen as a nod to the 20th anniversary of communism’s collapse.
There’s also been an uproar in recent years about the increasing anti-Americanism among the Nobel panel — honoring few American writers, giving a platform to anti-American (in some cases) cranks² and deriding American literature as backward — a fray of which I first became aware from that wingnut frothing-right hate site, Slate. Indeed, the later, undatelined versions of AP’s Mueller story not only had “little-known” in the headline, but essentially led with the anti-American controversy:
The judges, apparently, could not help themselves.
Just two days after a Nobel Prize official worried the literature committee was too “Eurocentric,” the winner for 2009 was Herta Mueller, a Romanian-born writer once censored in her native country.
And other outlets picked up on that angle. It’s not just “Eurocentrism,” but an apparently willful desire to honor the obscure, with historically hilarious results. The Nobel Literature prizes are kind of like the Oscars, in that the list of non-winners is just as distinguished (more distinguished, I’d argue in the case of the Nobels) than the list of winners. I was contacted by filmgeekbud Paul Clark earlier this year, and he told me about his Nobel Literature winners plan but said the list of laureates was really obscure to him and wanted my opinion. I got largely similar reactions to Paul. I went through the list of winners and put them in five I-think-self-explanatory categories (I’m using “foreigners” linguistically, meaning “people who don’t write in English”). This was what I sent him, with Herta Muller obviously becoming the 50th member of Category 5:
Now there’s some judgment calls here — I think Coetzee and Gordimer worthy but Lessing and Golding dubious, say. But I can respect someone who thinks Coetzee and Gordimer to be lesser figures in a way that I could not respect someone who said the same of Solzhenitsyn or Garcia Marquez. I also cannot avoid suspicion that a lot of recent awards have been essentially affirmative-action picks, while acknowledging that the other a-literary considerations in the past have so completely passed into history that I am simply unaware of them. That is, I know enough to doubt Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott, but not Sully Prudhomme or Giosue Carducci, whose literary reputations today match, I’m quite confident, what those of Morrison and Walcott will be in 2100. And necessarily, given who I am, the list of “unquestionably worthy” choices is weighted toward Anglophones and that there is no category “Anglophones I’ve never heard of.”
But all these stipulations aside, I still think it noteworthy that by far the largest category is “foreigners I’ve never heard of,” larger than any two others combined. And if you toss in “never heard of except for movie adaptations” (I don’t know how worthy DIE KLAVIERSPIELERIN is, but it’s no credit to Jelinek that I knew of her only as a footnote in the career of Michael Haneke), then you get an absolute majority of basically “I know nothing about them.” Not to sound arrogant, but if *I* have never even heard of a person other than in a list of Nobel Prize winners (not the same as “I like” or “I am knowledgeable about”; I meant “never heard of” literally), how likely is it that they’re really a major literary figure? Again, the Oscar comparison — I might not think Luise Rainier worthy of two Best Actress prizes, but I know who she is.
There’s another thing worth noting — the constancy over time of this “miss the boat” factor among the Nobel winners. I wouldn’t care about the Nobels picking authors obscure today, indeed I would applaud it, *if* their track record of finding canon-worthy writers was good. But that is exactly what is not the case. Not only does the balance between the forgotten and the canonized not change much over the decades, it actually gets more unfavorably tilted toward the former as you go back in time. To the best of knowledge, they haven’t plucked a Maurice Maeterlinck out of the Antwerp Customs Office and have him turn out to be (or become) another Herman Melville. Herta Mueller may turn out to be as great as Thomas Mann or Theodor Mommsen, but there’s no reason to think it, based on how well the past Nobel Laureates have aged. “Canon ratification” is one potential Nobel model — a Lifetime Achievement award for the already famous, basically. “Canon formation” is another — “here’s who among the obscure to look for,” basically. The history of the Nobel Literature Prize and its winners shows it hasn’t been doing a good job of either.
For fun, I also compiled for Paul a list of born in the 20th century Americans who have not won the Nobel, with my boldfacing those whom I think prima-facie “unquestionably worthy.” A pretty distinguished lot, I think.
And that doesn’t even take into account other nationalities (Proust, Nabokov … an embarrassment of riches) and Americans born in the 19th century but who lived and worked well into the 20th (Wharton, Cather, Dreiser, Frost, Pound, Fitzgerald — to name only those whose worthiness is indubitable).
¹ Oh … that’s right … there was *another* Nobel controversy Friday. That’s another panel — but it’s so embarrassing you can only joke about it. Even though Obama accepted and called it a kind of endorsement of his ideas (true enough), he made it clear that he didn’t think himself worthy or had achievements that justified it.
² As my graphic made clear, I think Pinter worthy on literary grounds, but for works done decades before he was honored (not itself a bad thing, of course). In the meantime, he’s gone off the deep end politically, saying quite soberly and seriously that the US per se is as evil as Nazi Germany.