The Mark Twain Prize for Humor? A Conundrum

02/10/2011 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Axelrod Professor of Comparative Literature, Chapman University

The United States has the global reputation of ignoring its writers. Its "serious" (i.e. literary) writers. Perhaps, that's why they tend to be dismissed around Nobel Laureate season. In over three decades, the last Americans to win a Nobel were Toni Morrison in 1993, Joseph Brodsky (who was more Russian than American) in 1987, and Saul Bellow in 1976. Count them: two. Well, 2 ½ if we count Brodsky. Given the same three decades between 1930-1962, there were five American Nobel Laureates: Sinclair Lewis, 1930; Eugene O'Neill 1936; Faulkner, 1949; Hemingway, 1954; and Steinbeck, 1962 none of whom were very humorous. At least not in print. That lack of Americans winning the Nobel Prize (not that the Nobel is the be-all-and-end-all of writing awards since they did prefer Sully Prudhomme to Tolstoy) brings to mind the comments by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury when he said: "Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States. The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," That ignorance is restraining." Of course, the backlash to Engdahl's comments was immediate, but, to paraphrase the bard, methinks the collective backlash protested too much.

But back to the Mark Twain Prize for Humor which, since Richard Pryor won it in 1998, has only been given to one writerly writer: Neil Simon in 2006. I always found that a bit odd. How is it, I thought, that the Mark Twain Prize for Humor is awarded not to a writer, but to a comedian? Notwithstanding the talent of those comedians who have won the prize, Twain's "humor" was not the stuff of stand-up. As a matter of fact, the only two comedians whose work would have really approached Twain's sense of humor would have been Pryor and Carlin the latter of whom Twain could have been thinking about in an anachronistic way when he wrote: "Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer." Twain's humor was often political, clearly black, and steeped in irony and, ironically, the most ironic thing about the Mark Twain Award is that it's not given to an American writer, but to a comedian. Were Twain alive, I imagine he'd have a few choice and ironic words to say about that decision not the least of which might be his quote that "The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it" from his "How to Tell a Story."

As far as I know, the fact that Twain wrote very little about comedians (probably more about animal rights) is telling in and of itself. Of course, what most people tend to miss is the fact that Twain was more often not funny. One need only read Huckleberry Finn closely or one of his really not-funny books, Letters From the Earth to realize that. But the fact that his name is attached to an award not awarded to writers is telling in relation to the entire notion of how serious writers in America are considered and how the rest of the world, including the Nobel Committee, looks upon them. Perhaps, next year there will be a change and John Barth might be considered for the award? Or Philip Roth? Or Robert Coover? Or Woody Allen for that matter? Then again, perhaps, not.