Americans and the Nobel: Perennial whining

With apologies if my gripe is too whiny or negative…

I feel like I write about this every year but every year, after the Nobel prize is awarded, there are such typical reactions in the American media. First it`s accusations that the Nobel has chosen someone “obscure” or “unknown” as if the US media is the arbiter of all that’s “known” in the literary world.

Roth: maybe one day

But this year, with our dear Alice Munro, they can hardly say that the committee has chosen an “unknown” writer, so the whine is that so few Americans have won. Again, this seems so terribly America-centric. Why do American literary writers think that the US is the center of the writing world?

For some small newspaper or provincial website, I guess I can understand since Americans can be so terribly nationalistic. But even the New Yorker whines on this point.

So let’s consider: since its founding, the Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to :13 French writers,
12 German writers, 9 British writers (lots of Swedes, Norwegians, some Italians, etc.). It’s been awarded to 10 Americans, including those who have dual backgrounds (like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz). I guess I don’t see why these numbers represent “few” Americans.

It’s true that an American hasn’t won this prize since 1993 when Toni Morrison won so perhaps the gripe is more a recent reality. Even so, when one considers the Europe-centric laureates in the past, it shouldn’t be a surprise. A prize is not pure. There are political considerations, tastes that come in and out of fashion, and the fact that the Nobel prize tends to jump around a bit (so they won’t award the prize to a French writer two years in a row, for example). Also, there are lots of great writers who live outside the US. Go figure!

The prize is not representative of democracy. In other words, a country with a big population won’t

Oates: maybe someday

necessarily win more Nobel prizes than a country with a smll population. China has won once (twice if one counts Gao Xingjian, whom the Chinese don’t usually count). Japan’s won twice. These are not small countries. Scandinavian countries, which represent a fraction of most of the world’s larger countries, have won 14 times.

To me these gripes get at the heart of America-centrism that is so key to so much of its problems: as if the American way, the American approach, American values, art, culture are somehow the envy of the world or the thing which is the standard.

America is but one country. An important country, yes, with some important writers. But this argument (from the New Yorker)  that not choosing an American winner is reflective of some political prejudice (from a writer who clearly doesn’t know much about “international” literature) is just stupid.  And dangerous because it just underscores the insularity that so many (even worldy, educated) Americans have about the world.

It reminds me of a Chinese guy I talked to once who told me that he only eats Chinese food because it’s so varied and so encompassing. And “foreign food” is too bland and too much of the same. In his very limited and underdeveloped mind, there were two choices: Chinese and not-Chinese and the entire complexity, history and variety of all “non-Chinese” cooking was one blanket category in his mind.

Or a friend in the US who was arguing with me about US politics, who asked me which newspapers I read: The NYT, the Guardian, the Globe & Mail, Le Monde and the South China Morning Post (not every day but I read those and more regularly). He reads the Seattle Times. His analysis: that my papers were “anti-American” and his paper had the “correct” view of the situation. Oy.

I say the above as an American, mind you. An American who has lived outside the US for the majority of my adult life. I probably get much more worked up about this than any America-phobe I know!

(Sidebar: the article also suggests the criticisms of the Booker prize for opening up the criteria to include Americans is based in prejudice. Could be true. But is there a single major US literary prize that considers writers who AREN’T American? Has there been a British National Book Award winner recently? A Japanese Pulitzer prize winner?)

An American will win the Nobel when it produces a writer good enough to compete with all the excellent writers who live outside the US.