The U.S. won’t win the Nobel for Literature

At the time of this printing, the Nobel Prize for Literature will almost certainly have already been announced, but I feel very confident in the fact that an American is not going to be the winner.

Now, it may entirely be possible that an American would be a winner and I will have to do the equivalent of eating crow next week, but the simple fact of the matter is that since Toni Morrison won before a number of you reading this were born, an American has not won the Nobel, while the French has won it twice—three times if you count Gao Xingjian. This is admittedly because they win it more than anyone else, but it’s easy to forget that we have a very high number of winners, several of which you’ve actually heard of even today, with Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner still seen as titans of American literature.

That being said, we’re thirsty for a win, and so here I come for the kill: We’re not going to get one for a long time and, to be honest, we don’t really have anyone who could be a plausible, if not credible, winner.

Now, this is admittedly unfair. We have a number of writers who would be very well suited to being a winner: Thomas Pynchon in fact has been—according to insiders—someone who would have won a long time ago if the Nobel committee didn’t think he’d make them look silly by refusing to show up or send a streaker, as he did when he won the National Book Award; Philip Roth has a lot of things the Nobels like, but his extraordinary lack of range and pornographic take on sex is an immense turnoff, to say nothing of the fact that he’s now retired; Cormac McCarthy can be seen too much as Faulkner copycat, and his relative quietness over the last decade has definitely hurt his profile; DeLillo is someone who I’m actually surprised hasn’t gotten it, but that could also be because his early work for the most part doesn’t match his late triumphs.

There are a number of Americans who would be qualified to win today besides the big three listed above. Stephen Dixon, Robert Coover, Joseph McElroy, John Ashbery, Marilynne Robinson, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley, Ursula Le Guin and James Ellroy would all be worthy winners, but the Nobel is a tricky beast: they want their winners to be philosopher and activist, writer of both brief profundities and treatises on humanity.

More than anything, they want the writers to be in an international dialogue of the best of the best, and it’s sad to say we just don’t do that as much as we used to. Not many Americans have fervent international followings like Saul Bellow’s adoration by the U.K., to mention a previous winner, and the U.S.’s disgraceful lack of translation has made us all the more insular and weaker as a result.

The youngest writer on that list I just put is pushing seventy, and I can’t see a single person younger than that having a chance of winning since David Foster Wallace’s death.
All is not lost, however. Young American winners that include Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, ZZ Packer—if she ever writes anything again—Teju Cole and Will Chancellor have a solid chance of becoming real international presences and potential future laureates.

But the fact of the matter is America, one of the most diverse countries in the western world, has made its literature insular from the global conversation. We can do better. In the meantime, we can only hope the Swedish Academy decides to give it to someone who isn’t a European male. Sweden has more prizes than all of Asia. We can stand to have some new blood.