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The Meritless Nobel Prize?

Posted: 10/ 6/2008 11:53 am

Thursday morning, somebody will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature... and that somebody probably won't be American. Sure, there are the usual rumors being floated around about Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, but it's not very likely to happen. Heck, people are desperate enough to create rumors about Salinger winning the award! So, why hasn't an American won the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993? Prize secretary Horace Engdahl provides the answer:

"The U.S. 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."

How dare you, Horace Engdahl! Why, that makes me want to blast Kid Rock in my SUV as I read passages from Blood Meridian! Seriously though, if Engdahl truly believes that American fiction is superficial, he's lost touch with what makes fiction powerful altogether.

Fiction's power does not necessarily lie in the political, nor does it lie in stylistic concerns that claim themselves as "high art." Instead, it lives in the power to unlock a universal truth, to somehow change the way a reader sees the world once they've put a book down. This is something that is true of fiction on both sides of the pond. It is not some sort of strictly European sensibility. Truth is fair game for all wordsmiths.

True, the Nobel has been awarded to some truly deserving talents over the years. Faulkner, Naipul, Coetzee -- all possessed a talent that can only be called superhuman. But it goes beyond Faulkner's wonderful use of stream-of-consciousness or Coetzee's wonderful economy of language. They went beyond painting the landscapes of America and South Africa -- they went for something deeper, something inside their souls.

The point is, there are plenty of writers in America deserving of the prize. Off the top of your head, I'm sure you could bat off a few names without thinking -- Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon -- and many more after giving it more thought. It goes beyond politics and into the realm of creating a good work, of giving a lens to the world around us.

Soon, all fiction, all frivolous, nationalistic issues are going to be a moot point anyway. As writers continue to ignore the significance of prizes, we'll see a true community of great fiction that ignores whether the novel is French of American -- you need to look no further than at Zadie Smith to see it happening already.

It can be very easy to look at past Laureates and claim that some choices were political. For instance, many have accused Orhan Pamuk's recent win as something beyond his abilities as a writer (brilliant as they may be). Is there something political about the Nobel Prize? Sure. Should there be? Probably not.

Am I getting too worked up over this? More than likely. Maybe at a time like this, those of us literati getting worked up over the Nobel should look at what last year's winner Doris Lessing had to say:

"Oh Christ! ... I couldn't care less."