The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature: A Guide to the Season, and Twenty Prize-worthy Authors

It’s Autumn, and the Nobel season is fast upon us.  Whether or not it be “of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” the fruit of some some lucky author’s labor has ripened at last and is about to drop from that great Northern branch.  The question remains, will it land in the favored one’s lap, or on  his or her head?  Or will the poor thing look up at the wrong moment and get it on the face?  All have been the case.

“It makes no difference,” we say of the Nobel Prize. Quite rightly too – or at any rate with rectitude.  “No Tolstoy, no Woolf, no credibility.” Yet we know full well that such protestations are nothing but the posturing of a twelve year old  trying to be canny about Christmas. In spite of our good sense, our heart rates run on sensibility, and the Nobel is nothing if not a tanker of sensibility. And so we find ourselves a little charged, a little addled from about the first of October until announcement day, as if something of actual importance were afoot, as if  Stockholm really were Olympus, as it claims. As if there really were a Santa Claus.

When the winner is announced, there are really only three possible responses: “Who?” “Why?”, or, rarer, “Why, of course.” Last year’s winner elicited all three. I remember just where I was and what I was doing when I first learned that the award had gone to Mario Vargas Llosa.  I was at the gym,  hamstering on the treadmill.  I glanced up at the nearest hanging television screen which happened to be tuned to CNN, and caught handsome Don Lemon telling Wolf Blitzer, standing across the high-gloss newsroom set, “This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to…some guy from Peru…Mario Vargas…Yeosa.  Where do they find these guys?” A fun variation of “Who?”.

I also remember Sam’s reaction when I got home and told him. “You’re kidding,” he said.  “That’s ridiculous!” The only time I have seen him more indignant about the Nobel was after reading The Golden Notebook, a book which ignited in him a fond loathing for Doris Lessing.  His response illustrated the “Why?” position. I happened to think Vargas Llosa was a logical choice. “Why, of course.” Only, my heart went out to Carlos Fuentes, the Latin American author I would have preferred to see win.  “No doubt, he’ll be out with a bad case of the flu for the rest of the month.” “For the rest of his life,” Sam rejoined. All this indicates a potential fourth response, one that draws on the flavor of all three, the “Oh. So that’s how it is,” response, generally followed by the “Maybe next year…” response.

But, I’m getting ahead of things. Right now it is time to celebrate caprice (see my first post: “The Nobel Prize: In Defense of Caprice” 2/26/11), or, as commenter Andsnes said, to move, intellectually, as children at play “in curvilinear ways.” For example, one member of the Shelfari discussion group (see link) put forth some most unexpected names as Nobel contenders: Hillary Mantel, Geraldine Brooks, Jhumpa Lahiri, fine writers all, but none of whom I would have connected to the Nobel.  And yet, it is a moment of play, that disconnect, like the mechanics of a good joke, so critical to our psychological health. I am all at once confronted with the question of why their names would not occur to me.  But they did occur to someone else. How interesting. Or, how about this one:  I have a friend who thinks it should go to Terry Pratchett.  Honestly!  Now, I can call that for the absurdity it is,  and yet I must affirm the spirit of play in which the suggestion was made. There is a touching exuberance with which we who worship our books project our own hopes and dreams onto our favorite authors, expecting them to reflect well-being back to us. What better for my friend than Terry Pratchett winning a Nobel.  It would feel like winning one himself.

On LibraryThing, I’ve been trying to work out with a couple of members just why they think Ngugi wa Thiong’o, worthy as he is for his use of his tribal language, would make a better African choice than Chinua Achebe, really the progenitor of the very concept of African literature destined for the world stage. This kind of go-around is, to me, the true worth of the Nobel Prize. Rather than some self-serving imprimatur, The Nobel Prize for Literature is an arms-flung-wide invitation for all of us who thrive on our reading to play with our intellectual food.  This is not frivolous.  Its how we get a grip on who we are, what we think, what holds meaning for us.

To get the party started, Here is my long list, twenty authors I would love to see win this year.


My Long List:

1.   Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

2,   Adonis (Lebanon)

3.   Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)

4.   Bei Dao (China)

5.   Annie Dillard (United States)

6.   Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)

7.   Ismail Kadare  (Albania)

8.   Gyorgy Konrad (Hungary)

9.   Milan Kundera (France)

10.  Cormac McCarthy (United States)

11.  Javier Marias (Spain)

12.  Alice Munro (Canada)

13.  Les Murray (Australia)

14.  Cees Nooteboom (Netherlands)

15.  Amos Oz (Israel)

16.  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia)

17.  Philip Roth (United States)

18.  Tom Stoppard (Great Britian)

19.  Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)

20.  William Trevor. (Ireland)


Next week I’ll give you my shortlist, my top five choices, with a sentence or two about why I think they are especially deserving. But, for now, its your turn. Don’t be bashful. It doesn’t suit you.  You have opinions. The “comments” icon is right here. Share your list.

6 Responses to The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature: A Guide to the Season, and Twenty Prize-worthy Authors

  1. I am remembering a line from a poem: “terror we expect, but we are always surprised by love”. Just now, enjoying your musings on the “prize” and the up-coming announcement, I read through your list of possible honorees, and suddenly I was flooded by love. Love that these men and women make my world, my explorations, my life better by the lonely work they do at their writing tables. And some lines from Mr Transtromer came again to me: from his poem, “Allegro” which begins “after a black day, I play Haydn” and then come these lines: “the sound says that freedom exists and someone pays no taxes to Caesar.” All these writers, in their ways, I suddenly realized in a veritable tsunami of love, say the same thing. “The music is a house of glass standing on a slope, rocks are flying, rocks are rolling/ The rocks roll straight through the house but every plate of glass is still whole.”

    They all (and I ) have already won.

    • Yes, Andsnes. Love. It is just the word for the feeling when I consider the fact of these people at their labors. I think especially of Orhan Pamuk, who has done his lonely work in the same city, the same apartment, looking at the same view that he has looked at his whole life, narrowing the physical scope of his world so that his inner world can have the poise to open on those great intellectual/spiritual edifices he creates. From this perspective, it matters not at all who wins. It doesn’t matter if the honoree is quantifiable as “The greatest writer in the Milky Way.” All that matters is that these men and women are working, daily, moment by moment, putting their hearts and minds on the line. And the world is better for it. By the way, I adore that Transtromer poem.

  2. Pingback:Zondag 2 oktober: forum & sites & blog « Literary E-discussions

    • I am unclear as to the actual human identity of the person who sent me the above message. I have approved it, though, because it looks like an interesting link, one that I will be keeping my eye on to see how it develops. It looks to be another place to have this most entertaining discussion. If the human being behind this message reads this response, please declare yourself. I’d like to know who you are.

  3. Fear not, David, the mystery message simply means that someone has linked your blog to another blog, or tweeted your blog to someone else.

    In today’s Huffington Post, Anis Shivani humbly submits Salman Rushdie as a possible contender. But I think that, given the events in northern Africa, the Prize will likely go to an African writer (though Adonis also remains a strong possibility, Elias Khoury as well). Achebe or Thiong’o are the two most apparent choices. Breyten Breytenbach is also a possibility, but more distant, as South Africa is already well-represented.

    • Hi “scoundrel”, what fun to hear from you!

      And thanks for clarifying, for the sake of this neophyte, deer-in-the-headlights blogger about the above message. I gathered it was something like that.

      You mentioned a name I have not heard: Breyten Breytenbach (I’m reminded of a character from P. G. Wodehouse named Cyril Bassington Bassington). Tell me what you know about this writer. The announcement is supposedly scheduled for this Thursday, the sixth. Who are you rooting for? Or is that too much like hockey for you?