The Nobel Prize For Literature And The U.S.

Three questions:

  1. Who’ll be the next American to win a Nobel for literature,

  2. Who was the most deserving American never to get the Nobel, and

  3. Of the following list of American Nobel winners, how many were underserving?

The list:

1993- Toni Morrison
1987- Joseph Brodsky
1980-Czeslaw Milosz
1978-Isaac Bashevis Singer
1976-Saul Bellow
1962-John Steinbeck
1954-Ernest Hemingway
1949-William Faulkner
1938-Pearl S Buck
1936-Eugene O’Neill
1930-Sinclair Lewis

Well, since everything I have read that Hemingway wrote sucked, I say he is the most undeserving.

is this going to be an IMHO-style thread? :slight_smile:

  1. don delillo

  2. f. scott fitzgerald

  3. I consider all the ones I’ve read deserving.

The least deserving was almost certainly Pearl Buck, followed closely by Toni Morrison. Sinclair Lewis is another unworthy winner. And finally, with some sadness, I add John Steinbeck to the “unworthy” list. While I loved much of what Steinbeck wrote, I just don’t think he wrote quite enough great stuff to merit a Nobel Prize (it’s the same problem I’d have with putting Ron Guidry in the Baseball Hall of Fame- he was magnificent for one season, very good for a few more, but not consistently great enough to merit a spot in the Hall of Fame).

The worthiest author never to win a Nobel? Probably Theodore Dreiser, who should have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, rather than that overrated drunk, Sinclair Lewis.

As for future American winners… Arthur Miller probably stands the best chance.

Least deserving - Pearl Buck in a landslide, but I’ve never read Brodsky, Milosz, or Bellow.

Next - DeLillo or Pynchon.

Never Won - Mark Twain.

Ah, a thread for me if ever there was one! I’m a nerd that follows literary awards religiously.
Next American to win: Phillip Roth. He’s brilliant, already a multiple winner of the PEN Award, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, he’s widely respected and it doesn’t hurt that he writes a lot books with heavy Jewish themes (writing about opressed or persecuted ethnic groups is popular–see V.S. Naipul, Morrison, etc.) Thomas Pynchon would also make a worthy winner, but I don’t think the Swedish Academy “gets” his work. Hell, I imagine few writers lose more in translation than him. David Mamet might get it in another ten years unless the Swedes begin to think of him more as a filmmaker than a playwright, which reminds me, it’s time to either make filmmakers eligible or create a Nobel Prize for film. Ingmar Bergman should immediately get one for for his entire career.
Most deserving never to win? That’s a tough one because the criteria for choosing Nobel laureates, particularly in the fiction category, has blurred considerably over the years. Is it an award for literary merit given to someone for a lifetime of great work? If so, how can Boris Pasternak be deserving when he only wrote one major work (Doctor Shivago)? Is it a humanitarian award given to writers whose work somehow serves to better humanity?

Sadly, the award is more political than anything else these days. A writer’s chances of winning the award increase greatly if his or her country is “due” for a winner (about every ten years is right) and if the themes that writer most frequently writes about are considered relevant at the time. No American will win anytime soon due to the backlash over our war with Iraq, unless some American author publishes a book heavily critical of our involvement in the Middle East. I think they may pick a European, probably a French writer, just to spite us.

If the best writer gets it, I’ll answer with Vladimir Nabokov (he was a U.S. citizen when he wrote many of his greatest works, including Lolita and was eligible for the National Book Award because Pnin was nominated for one), who hated didactic literature, but wrote brilliantly and quite prolifically. If the award is for writers “with a message,” my pick is James Baldwin or Richard Wright, both of whom I respect immensely regardless of theme.
Least deserving? Pearl S. Buck (HAHA!), Toni Morrison (give me a break, have you read Beloved?) and Hemingway, that lousy hack.

Okay, the gloves are off -

  • Was Hemingway a racist? Most certainly, based on reading A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not. Was he a misogynist? Oh yeah. Was he a brilliant writer who deserved the accolades he earned? Oh, hell yeah. Have you read A Farewell to Arms? Have you read For Whom the Bell Tolls? Have you read his short stories, such as The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber or The Snows of Kilimanjaro? People, look - you don’t like the man, fine - frankly, I don’t either - but to deny his absolute brilliance as a writer and the impact he had on writing in the 20th century is naive, cute and silly. Get over it. Picasso was a misogynist and a prick, too. And Joyce was an egomaniacal twit. That doesn’t change their their art and their place in history. Please.

  • Who should be the next American to win? Philip Roth, like Rainbowthief said. No American writer has written such good, important books for so long. Who else could have written books that are so worthy of discussion - you may not like them, but they are worth talking about - in their 60’s, such as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and A Human Stain? No one - Updike is past his prime, and DeLillo is not near Roth’s level. I am frankly surprised he hasn’t won by now.

  • astorian, I disagree with your assessment that Sinclair Lewis is unworthy. Have you read Babbitt? Fucking brilliant - his satire of the working man is timeless - reads like current lit. As for Steinbeck, I guess I agree - his “message” lit, like Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men is too earnest, but his warm, timeless lit, like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row stand tall to this day. He was best when he wasn’t trying too hard. And his short stories are wonderful - have you read Chrysanthemums or The White Quail? Brilliant.

  • Okay, who isn’t worthy? Milosz who? Bashevis Singer and Brodsky haven’t last a couple of decades, let alone enduring in history. Morrison was awarded about two decades too early, so we’ll never know what she could’ve written.

Frankly, the Nobel has lost most of its allure. Back when Hemingway and Steinbeck won, it meant something. Now, it feels more political than anything - the writers winning, for the most part, are being picked because of the message being sent by awarding them, not for their work. Having said that, Coetzee is a truly brilliant writer and provides a great exception to the statement I just made. Disgrace is the best book I have read in a decade…

WordMan, I agree 100% about Updike. After reading Brazil, I wished he’d never written it because it was laughably bad, the kind of dreck I’d read from the slush pile when I interned for a publishing company while in college.

Brodsky was one of those political winners, like Seamus Heaney, Pasternak, Gao Xingjian and several others. Since 1980, only about five or six of the winners actually deserved it.

A writer I wish would win a Nobel prize but probably never will is Kurt Vonnegut. I absolutely love his stuff, but I often get the impression that non-Americans feel he’s overrated. Same thing for Cormac McCarthy.

Damn, I was going to post this hours ago and then had to leave for a movie. So I’ll just give the bare bones.

Jello, Good point about Twain. It shows just how underrated or worse, never-even-to-be-considered, American writers were until after WWI.

Buck is certainly the most surprising name on the list. She was considered no more than a bestseller writer even at the time.

Philip Roth is my candidate for a future pick. He has all the credentials of Saul Bellow, just a generation behind.

Delillo and Pynchon are not the sort of writers that win the Nobel, so they’re not in the running. I would give it to Pynchon over Delillo if I had to pick.

Certainly Hemingway deserved it. When you transform literature somebody has to sit up and take notice.

Much as I love Fitzgerald, his career ouput of top novels is too small for a true contender. That also knocks off people like James Baldwin or Harper Lee, who would have been a shoo-in with a career’s worth of Mockingbirds. And Vonnegut, who was at his best only for a novel or two and even then not in the same league as these others.

And I have to admit that I’ve never read Brodsky or Czeslaw Milosz - and I don’t know anyone who has.

Brodsky’s a poet, if that helps any. (Haven’t read him or Milosz either, and I never heard of Milosz until I complied the list in my OP.)

Didn’t Twain die before Pulitzer and Nobel established their awards?

And no Pulitzer Prize winner will be awarded posthumusly.

Well, as others said, it depends on the criteria, which seem to change from year to year. I still can’t believe Flannery O’Connor never won, and I can’t believe Hemingway and Buck did, and I’m glad no haters have showed up to wonder why Faulkner did. Nabokov should have won, but his most famous work was far too controversial for the Nobel people.

Anyway, if these two keep improving from book to book as they have over the past few years, I’d definitely expect to see Michaal Chabon and Jonathan Lethem nominated in about ten years…

I may be wrong, but I could swear that either Faulkner or Hemingway won their second Pulitzer posthumously.

Okay, I was wrong about Faulkner and Hemingway, but there have been posthumous Pulitzer winners:

1958 A Death In The Family by the late James Agee (a posthumous publication) (McDowell, Obolensky)

1981 A Confederacy of Dunces by the late John Kennedy Toole (a posthumous publication) (Louisiana State U. Press)



Svenska Akademin rarely give the prize posthumosly nowadays, and if you’re talking about Sam Clemens, they missed a writer and playwright much closer to home - August Strindberg.

Yes, the award is a bit political, but not too much. If they wanted to send a message, Rushdie would’ve won, but instead, the academy was almost torn apart re: the bruhaha (sp?) surrounding him.

The past years, the tendency is to have a winner who is:

  1. Past his prime, agewise.
  2. Obscure
  3. Gets a ‘lifetime achievment award’.

The very idea, nowadays, is to give the award to a writer who’s produced good literature, but hasn’t gotten commercial success. Sorta like a consolation prize. They tend to spread it across the globe, mostly for political reasons.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was first given in 1901. Mark Twain died in 1910. The first Pulitzer Prizes were given in 1917.

In the early years, the prize was awarded mainly lesser writers who were sure to accept it. They didn’t want the prize’s reputation to be destroyed at the beginning by having it refused. Tolstoy ( died 1910) never won it either, and I think he must rank higher on the “robbed” list than Twain. Also, Twain’s reputation rests largely on one book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though as Rainbowthief points out, that is also true of Boris Pasternak, so that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem.

To return to the questions in the OP:
I shall nominate Thomas Pynchon as the writer who most deserves to be the USA’s next winner. Roth is certainly a strong choice, but I find that Pynchon’s books stay longer in the memory. Even the brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint cannot match Gravity’s Rainbow, I think.

As the least deserving, I must go with the flow and suggest Pearl Buck and Toni Morrison.

For the best American winner so far, I shall confound A wizard song for three by choosing William Faulkner.

We were discussing this last night. Philip Roth, already mentioned, is a good candidate. Arthur Miller probably deserves it for decades of good plays. Pynchon seems unlikely since he’s been in decline since Gravity’s Rainbow and his style of writing is moving out of fashion (see also Don DeLillo).

Unless Roth or Miller wins, I think America will have to wait quite some time. I’d like to see Salinger win, but think it’s unlikely. Reclusedom would count against both Salinger and Pynchon. As a long shot, I might go for Sam Shepard, intermittently America’s greatest playwright (well, Mamet’s probably better, but you can’t imagine him winning, can you?)

Non-winners: Ezra Pound was arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century, although I think his fascist sympathies (and possibly his institutionalisation for mental illness) counted heavily against him. F Scott Fitzgerald died too soon and didn’t publish that many great works (Gatsby and some of the finest short stories ever written). Eudora Welty should have got it, and lived long enough, but they just never got around to her. Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers died too soon.

Undeserving? Since the prize is often given as much for worthiness and moral value as for literary merit, I can excuse Steinbeck’s win. Sinclair Lewis was I’m sure a very nice man, with very worthy political beliefs, and Main Street is mildly entertaining, but I have to speculate that there was somebody better alive at that point and call for his expulsion.

And I don’t like Saul Bellow at all: I think he’s far too solipsistic and interested solely in the dilemma of being a middle-class Jewish novellist in Chicago. But evidently enough people think that’s a sufficiently universal topic to win a Nobel Prize.

I think it’s unfortunately true that Roth is the likeliest American to win next, but I don’t think he’s worthy (like Buck, Steinbeck*, and Hemingway, in the list above). He’s just the most politically expedient. And I agree wholeheartedly that Flannery O’Connor should have received the award; I personally categorize her as a Nobel winner, because I have no doubt that if she’d live long enough she’d have been so honored.

I think Paul Auster’s career should eventually lead to a Nobel. Other than him, I don’t think there’s a single U.S. writer, at least whom I’m familiar with, who even smells like Nobel material. And personally, I’ll lose a great deal of respect for the Prize if Pynchon or DeLillo wins it.

On the other hand, I think the Nobel prize for literature should take filmmakers into account, certainly since it considers playwrights. I think Tarkovsky’s films are ever bit as important as any Nobel laureate’s, ditto Dreyer, Bergman, etc. Unfortunately most of the century’s Nobel-worthy filmmakers are dead, but I think they should be considered in the future.

The only American filmmakers, IMHO, who even show Nobel-level potential, are Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz.

(And I’m shocked nearly to the point of disgust to see Cormac McCarthy’s name even mentioned in this thread: not only non-Americans think he’s overrated, Rainbow.)

*Though I agree that Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are timelessly brilliant.

I love Auster, but I never considered him a Nobel contender. He does fit in the Camus/Gide style, but I don’t think Camus and Gide would’ve won their Nobels in this era, which is why I don’t think Auster will. I hope I’m wrong, though.

Pynchon and DeLillo, IMHO, are easily more deserving than many of the lightweights who’ve won like Toni Morrison and Hemingway. Pynchon probably intimidates the Swedish Academy and then there’s always the fear that he’ll decline the award (you know for damn sure he won’t attend the ceremony!), but DeLillo fits the bill more. I think the fact that he’s been nominated for the Pulitzer three times and lost all three times will help.

I agree with Haynes, but Solondz isn’t even Oscar material. I’d pick John Sayles over him, and Sayles isn’t even my top choice. If pure writing talent is the criteria over work that contributes to humankind, Woody Allen would deserve it also, regardless of the Soon Yi fiasco.

I think The Border Trilogy is better than anything Faulkner ever wrote and his skill with the English language is equal (though different) to Nabokov, Beckett and Conrad.