24 September 2018

The Nobel Prize in Literature Takes This Year Off. Our Critics Don’t.

By Dwight GarnerParul SehgalJennifer Szalai and John Williams

Right about this time of year is when the literary world would normally be praising, bemoaning or just scratching its collective head over the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Alas, this year’s prize has been “postponed” (two will be awarded in 2019) because of a sex abuse scandal in the august halls of the Swedish Academy, which hands out the award. That scandal is being covered elsewhere in this newspaper. But to help fill the void of conversation around the prize itself, I recently spoke with The New York Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — about what the prize has meant (or not meant) to their own reading habits; their opinions of past winners (and past snubs); and whom they would bestow the honor upon this year if they could. — John Williams

Will you miss the awarding of the prize this year? Has it meant anything to you in the past? Have you ever discovered a writer’s work because of it?

PARUL SEHGAL Well, this is awkward. I fully intended to say that I was indifferent to the charade of the Nobel; that it’s madness to believe that literary excellence can be conferred by committee. Adam Kirsch has a good line about the Swedish Academy being the Politburo of literature.

But when I sat down to write, what did I see on the bookshelf across from me but my wizened copy of Kenzaburo Oe’s “A Personal Matter.” And below it, Yasunari Kawabata’s wonderfully licentious “House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories.” Somewhere in these stacks are also Heinrich Böll’s “Billiards at Half-Past Nine” (which I only pretended to read) and his “Group Portrait With Lady” (which I loved).

Image Yasunari Kawabata, right, receiving the 1968 literature prize.CreditAssociated Press

I like to believe that I would have found these books anyway, but how long would I have had to wait? As it was, they found me, when I was growing up outside of the “literary centers” of the world (like most people). I remember being young and feeling very much at the margins, desperately curious about the world and not knowing where to look. The Nobel — imperfect as any human endeavor — shone a light.

That said, other awards are doing a better job of bringing the news these days. Take the Man Booker International Prize. The long list this year was an incredible cross section of styles and sensibilities. The Nobel has felt a little lost in comparison.

DWIGHT GARNER I’ll miss it. The Nobel is a charade, in many respects, but it’s the charade we have. I too have shelves littered with writers I might not have found otherwise, Naguib Mahfouz and Patrick Modianoamong the first who come to mind. About the lesser talents who have won the prize, I like Gore Vidal’s observation that one should “never underestimate Scandinavian wit.” Here’s a bonus: The Nobel in Literature often does extraordinary things for small publishers.

JENNIFER SZALAI I can’t say I’ll miss it much. Would I have ever read Elias Canetti if it weren’t for the Nobel? Maybe, maybe not; for those non-Anglo writers who won it decades ago, it’s hard to know whether the Nobel alone was responsible for their renown here.

The most recent winner whom I hadn’t heard of and then made an effort to read was Imre Kertesz, who won in 2002. His work was hard to get in English translation at the time, and so I sent my father Hungarian-language editions purchased from a bookseller on the Upper East Side, thinking he could read them and we would talk. My father became too sick to want to read an autobiographical novel about the Holocaust, and so it didn’t happen. (And as much as a part of me wanted to read Tim Wilkinson’s reportedly lucid translations that were published in the years that followed, Kertesz became too closely connected to that time in my life, and so that didn’t happen either.)

Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the prize should go to “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The Academy later took that to mean works of “a lofty and sound idealism.” Let’s not even open the keg of worms that is “sound idealism.” I’ll just ask: Do the prize’s explicitly stated political connotations help or hurt in understanding its choices? And do its political considerations make the prize more or less worthy as a literary project?

SZALAI When I read about the background of the prize, my first thought was: Whose “ideal direction” are we talking about? A committee that awards the Nobel to Rudyard Kipling, as it did in 1907 (praising him for his “virility of ideas,” which I suppose is one way of characterizing his work), clearly defines idealism in a way that’s different from a committee that awards the prize to, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined the prize when it was offered to him in 1964.

The political connotations might help us understand the choices in certain years, especially when the committee has been explicit about ethical or moral considerations (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz), but then what about a laureate like Alice Munro, who won in 2013, cited for being “master of the contemporary short story”? (Also, for what it’s worth, the Academy itself insists that politics is no longer as central to decisions as people like to presume.

I do think that politics can be a better guide to figuring out why some writers didn’t get the prize. Ezra Pound, for instance — who I was surprised to learn was nominated 10 times! It apparently wasn’t anything in his poetry that knocked him from the list. The committee deemed him unacceptable because of his enthusiastic fascism and vicious anti-Semitism — what one of the members called his “ ‘subhuman’ reaction” to the Holocaust.

As to the question of whether this makes the prize more or less worthy as a literary project, I suppose I should state here that I’m a Nobel skeptic — I still don’t quite understand why so much weight is placed on its decision, as if it weren’t the result of a very subjective and inevitably flawed deliberation process by a tiny committee in Stockholm, filled with extremely fallible humans (their fallibility being the reason we’re having this conversation in the first place). Yes, it introduces international audiences to a writer they might never have heard of — that’s great, and I’m all for it. But it seems to me that part of its outsize stature derives mostly from its longevity and the enormous size of its purse, which just mimics the kind of winner-take-all world in which we live.

GARNER My favorite take on this question is Philip Roth’s. He said: “I wonder if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.”

SEHGAL I agree that the Academy seems to be moving in a direction where it’s less focused on making a political statement through these awards. Or perhaps it’s becoming more broad in what it considers political literature. A book about the arrival of a baby (by genteel Alice Munro, say) is no less political than a book about a bomb.

Let me put this next question as succinctly as possible. Bob Dylan: Yea or nay?

GARNER Big yea. I remember waking that morning, seeing the news on Twitter, and impulsively letting fly, in a row, 15 to 20 surprised and happy expletives. The Nobel acknowledged what we’ve long sensed to be true: that Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.

SEHGAL To me it felt like a stunt and a bid for attention — like when the prize was awarded to Dario Fo in 1997. (Sorry, Dwight!)

SZALAI I associate Dylan’s win with the other upset of 2016.

GARNER On this topic my brilliant colleagues, to quote Mr. Zimmerman, are lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Eastertime too.

The list of notable non-winners of the prize is notoriously long. There’s no breath big enough to get them all out, but a few include Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Kafka, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Nabokov. … Which of the snubs surprise you most, given the stated goals of the prize?

SEHGAL By the logic of the Nobel, it’s blasphemous that Henrik Ibsen never won. Or Joyce. Or — my God — Tolstoy.

If the (notoriously unpredictable) Academy has a preference, it seems to be for authors whose work can be read as an allegory for the larger story of their nation or culture. At least that’s the impression you’ll get from its statements over the years. Pablo Neruda was honored “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.” Kawabata “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” Toni Morrison for giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

The word “renewal” also gets bandied about in award statements. The Academy likes writers who “renew” and refresh their native languages, so the omission of Joyce really perplexes me. Too smutty, I wonder? No, too funny. That’s the real blind spot of the Academy. It can recognize work that is quiet, difficult, explicit, experimental, but it can’t handle humor.

Can we take this in a more gossipy direction? Who shouldn’t have won? I was horrified to learn that not only did Churchill win in 1953, for his collected speeches, but that he was nominated for the literature prize 21 times.

GARNER John Steinbeck seems like an error. Ditto Pearl S. Buck, who wrote one or two good books but about 70 bad ones. I would have liked to have seen Iris Murdoch win the prize. Few writers have combined the philosophical and the earthy to quite the same effect. Also John Updike, though he is no longer popular to champion. I agree with Martin Amis, who called him “a NORAD of data gathering and microintrospection.”

Has the prize been better on poetry? It’s been given to Yeats, Eliot and Seamus Heaney, among others.

GARNER No. For every Yeats, Eliot, Joseph Brodsky, Heaney or Derek Walcott who have won the prize, there are vastly more who have been forgotten, and deservedly so. (Sully Prudhomme or Verner von Heidenstam, anyone?) The Swedish Academy missed Elizabeth Bishop, who burned in the sky like a planet. She may have been the most purely gifted poet of the 20th century. The committee always had a poor eye for female poets. Only four have won the prize: Grazia Deledda (1926), Gabriela Mistral (1945), Nelly Sachs (1966) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996).

Two who are deserving right now, in my view, are Louise Glück and Rita Dove. Glück’s work is so pointed and raw, and I find that Dove’s poems stick with me. They lodge in the mind.

Can I complain a bit more about poets who never won the prize? Selecting Robert Frost would have been a blow for sanity. Wallace Stevens did not win, nor Philip Larkin, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara (for grace) or John Berryman (for rude energy).

Svetlana Alexievich (2015) is one of the rare nonfiction writers to be recognized by the Nobel committee. Are more nonfiction writers a good idea? Or does that just muddy the waters even more and lead to more writers/cultures/histories that can be overlooked?

SZALAI I’m not entirely sure that the committee doesn’t already consider a number of nonfiction writers as it is, since the deliberations are closed for 50 years after each prize is granted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that more nonfiction writers should actually get it — though I’m definitely against excluding them as a rule. Besides, the boundaries within literature can be porous, and if someone writes gorgeous work that happens to be called nonfiction, why shouldn’t that be considered literature?

All that said, there are plenty of nonfiction writers who don’t think of what they do as art; simply delivering information shouldn’t make someone a candidate for the Nobel. But then I suspect there are a number of fiction writers who don’t think of what they do as art either! I know that E.L. James has been on the Ladbrokes list for the Nobel (500-1 odds), but just because she writes fiction, strictly speaking, doesn’t mean she’s ever been considered.

Watch, a few years from now I’ll look like one of those people who said that Donald Trump would never become president.

SEHGAL Sure — more nonfiction writers, why not? But why not more writers who muss up, destabilize and generally monkey with our tidy (boring) conceptions of genre? How thrilling it would be to see the prize awarded to someone like Anne Carson, who fuses poetry, scholarship and criticism.

GARNER If the prize were ever to go to a critic, I’d give it to Clive James. He has so much erudition and high-stepping passion. He writes excellent poems and even better memoirs. He has delivered very good books of translation. He is a polymath. He is also very funny, and Nobel winners are rarely witty, to Parul’s point. “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds,” he’s written. “A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humor are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.” Words to live by.

If you were a one-person Nobel committee this fall, whom would you give it to? I was eager for William Trevor to win it while he was alive, though when Munro, another English-language writer known for exquisite short stories, won it, I figured Trevor’s final opportunity had passed. Now that he’s gone, I feel much less strongly. But I’d give it to Cormac McCarthy. He’s 85 now, and I do hope age is taken into account, since younger authors will normally live to see more chances. I think his last great book was “The Crossing” (I’m a rare voice of dissent on “The Road”), but that and what came before it seems worthy of enshrinement to me, even if the bleak nihilism of his earliest work doesn’t nearly fit with the lofty idealism part. Louise Erdrich also comes to mind, though I’ve read less of her prolific work.

GARNER If you named me King of the Academy, I suspect I would select Glück or Margaret Atwood or McCarthy, the latter for his earlier rather than his later books. (Give me the raucous “Suttree” over the chapped-lipped Border trilogy.) My favorite of these writers to pick up on a whim is Glück. You can dip in almost anywhere and be held rapt.

SZALAI Giving it to Laszlo Krasznahorkai would go against Parul’s totally spot-on observation about the adamant humorlessness of the committee (he’s very gloomy and very funny), but I’d be delighted to see it happen, if only because it would inevitably expose otherwise reluctant readers to his brilliant, incantatory weirdness. The Nobel confers so much, in terms of money and recognition, that it seems like a waste when they give it to somebody who already has loads of both.

SEHGAL I’d be happy to see Ngugi wa Thiong’o honored. What a career and against what odds: from writing the first modern novel in Kikuyu — in prison, on toilet paper — to a foundational trilogy on Kenyan independence to his dazzling magical-realist masterpiece, “Wizard of the Crow,” and, recently, a shelf of memoirs. And seeing that the Academy has stated that two prizes will be awarded in 2019, I’ll give you one more: the sui generis Yoko Tawada, for a body of work that is personal, surreal and unsurpassingly strange (I direct you to “The Bridegroom Was a Dog”). Few writers are as nimble and playful with language; she writes her books in Japanese and German, depending on the mood she’s in. It’s worth noting, too, that only 14 women have been awarded the prize since it was first handed out in 1901 — almost all from Europe or the Americas. The winners representing Africa were both white. No woman from Asia or the Middle East has ever won.

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