Monday, October 03, 2016

Updated: Perennial Post: Who'll Receive the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?


ABSURDITY (A short Nobel Prize in Literature play*)

Swedish Academy Guy 1: Ngugi should get it.
SA Guy 2: Ko Un. Very good poet, I hear. I don't read...Korean?
SA Guy 3: Um, is Philip Roth dead?
SA Guy 4: That Brazilian guy...what is his name? You know. Guys?
SA Woman: Any women???
Quorum: Dylan!!!

*In memory of playwright, activist and provocateur Dario Fo (1922-2016), 1997 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Can Xue (
Another year, another year of speculation: who will win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, whose announcement has now been pushed back to next week? (The same thing happened 11 years ago.) Almost every year that I've blogged here, I've devoted longish columns to forecasting about this most widely known, recognized and publicly exalted (and execrated, in some quarters) of literary prizes, and more often than not, I've been wrong about the possible winners, though I have at times tossed out names of people who did go on to win. Cast a wide enough net and you will catch something.

Some of the potential honorees who appeared in my first J's Theater wish list back in 2005 are no longer with us. Assia Djébar, Carlos Fuentes and E. L. Doctorow (the latter two my former teachers), to name a few, have departed for that distant library in the heavens. (Still others I pointed to in subsequent posts, like Andrée Chedid, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Mahasveta Devi, also have passed since that initial post 1l years ago.) One writer I did state ought to win, Harold Pinter, received the prize that year, though I can't say I singled him out. (I was and remain a fan of his work.) While I have frequently mentioned Patrick Modiano as a fascinating case study (of a writer who essentially writes the same book over and over) to my students, I did not think he'd slip past far more inventive and compelling French writers like Yves Bonnefoy or Michel Tournier (both of whom died earlier this year). Remaining on the French tip, I still am baffled by J. G. M. LeClézio's win in 2008.

Prior Nobel posts: 2005 - (2005 discussion of Pinter) - 2006 - 20072008 - 2009 (1) - 2009 (2) - 20102011 - 20122013 - 20142015.

In any case, as many critics, I included, have noted, the prize--which is the result of ideologically tinged choices by a relatively tiny committee of Europeans but has global ramifications--has in recent years increasingly turned towards European literature, with roughly 11 honorees out of the last 15 either born or based on that continent. Additionally, only 4 of the 15 have been women. The imbalance is not only one of region and gender but of genre: only one writer working primarily as a poet, Tomas Tranströmer, has been awarded, and the same is true in terms of drama: since 2000 only dramatist Harold Pinter has received the award. (Elfriede Jelinek writes both fiction and plays, but I believe she received the award based on her novels.) Last year's winner, Svetlana Alexeievich, practices a form of creative nonfiction that had not been highlighted among prior winners, though a few past laureates, including former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and philosopher Henri Bergson have been recognized for nonfiction prose. I also don't think an openly gay or queer writer has won in some time, but I could be wrong. That appears to be a blind spot among the Nobel judges.

(And as I have pointed out many times in the past, quite a few of the greatest writers were completely overlooked by the Nobel committee. That is going to continue to happen with a prize going to only one writer per year, most of whom are European and male, and which overlooks work by women, work that is very formally innovative, politically complicated, and work not regularly translated into major European languages. One writer about whom I'll post soon, Elena Ferrante, strikes me as potentially falling in this category, not just because of the controversies that have swirled around her "identity," but also because her dazzling, profound work is also so popular, within and outside Italy.)

So: instead of a long argument about the history of the award, a rundown of good or bad prior choices, and so on, here's a short list of people I think are deserving. I should point out that I tweeted thoughts to Shigekuni about his Nobel Prize list, and we have some overlap. I also found Two Lines Press's conversation, arranged in betting fashion, intriguing, though I wish they'd gone a bit deeper with their praise and critiques. I admire a number of the writers they include, some of whom make my list. A third and superb run-down of the global greats appears at The Birdcage. One thing that I think should occur is more double prizes, or even a triple prize, as sometimes occur in the Chemistry and Physics categories. Some of the writers listed below are getting up there in age, so rather than dragging things out, honor several in one swoop, and be done with it!

(I should point out that Ladbroke's list is out, and as usual, it includes some of the usual suspects and some idiosyncratic choices. These are the folks the bettors think might win. At the top is Haruki Murakami, a writer whose work I'm quite fond of, but who should not be selected over any of the people listed below. Yet again, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates are high on the list. Others who appear include John Banville, Jon Fosse (I read him for the first time a few years ago and was charmed), Peter Handke (politics may doom him again), Peter Nadas (he wrote a giant novel, which always impresses people), Amos Oz (I'm a fan), A. B. Yehoshua (also a fan of his), Adam Zagejewski (beloved by comp lit people), Juan Marsé (hmm), Kjell Askildsen (never read him but I know he's controversial), and Doris Kareva (never read her). Note that other than Murakami, Adonis (in second place at 6/1 odds), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (fourth at 10/1 odds), Oz and Nadas, all of the other writers are...European! Do scroll down for some of the interesting choices below.)

Frankétienne (Allison Shelley for
The New York Times)
Anyways, here's my list:

‡. Adonis - One of the major poets in contemporary Arabic literature, enchantingly lyrical and formally daring, he'd be a timely pick, and probably should have received the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

‡. John Ashbery  - Perhaps the most influential living English-language poet, 89 years old and still writing and publishing.

‡. Tahar ben Jelloun - Prolific, intense, and a major living North African and Francophone fiction writer.

‡. Can Xue - She has been labeled by male critics as crazy, but this self-taught genius is a lodestar in Chinese-language literature. Her chances of winning the prize right now are probably low, however, because of the recent award to Mo Yan and a prior one in 2000 to Gao Xiangjin. From what I can tell based on the translations of the work of all three, Can is the best and most aesthetically daring of these three.
‡. Juan Goytisolo - Among living Spanish-language writers, he is a pathblazer, and his trilogy, which includes Count Julian, is a landmark in Hispanophone literature. One of my favorites of his works is a much more modest but highly inventive and entertaining work, The Garden of Secrets. He's openly gay and has harshly criticized European colonialism, so he may never win.

‡. Nuruddin Farah - One of the most important writers of East Africa, an author of influential, engaging and beautiful novels, Farah would be a great choice.

‡. Frankétienne - Haiti's powerhouse, a master artist in Caribbean and African Diasporic literature, this author has left his mark in numerous genres, and should have won the Nobel Prize over some of the lackluster picks of recent years. He has predicted his death will come in 2020, so get on it, Swedish Academy!

‡. Patricia Grace - Grace has deeply enriched New Zealand and Maori literature, Grace is the author of numerous highly praised novels, collections of short stories, and children's books. She received the 2008 Neustadt International Prize.

‡. Wilson Harris - Guyanese-British, utterly original, prolific, and now 95 or so. One of my heroes and one of the greats.

‡. Kim Hyesoon - I cannot read Korean, but I am highly persuaded by poet Don Mee Choi's excellent translations of Kim's work. No writer from Korea has ever won the award, so Kim would be  a positive first.

‡. Ismael Kadaré - An Albanian writer, and thus a European, though Albania remains figuratively and literally on the margins of Europe. I have read only one of his novels and it was as good as the novels I've read by any of the last 10 laureates, and outrageously funny.

‡. Laszlo Krasznahorkai - As European fiction writers go he is in a category of his own. His Seiobo There Below is, like past laureate J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello an innovation on the novel form deserving the highest praise. I believe his health is stellar, but I think it should go to several others who are older and more frail first. But very deserving.

‡. Abdellatif Laâbi -This Moroccan poet's oeuvre ranks among the finest in contemporary Francophone and North African literature.

‡. Antonio Lobo Antunes - I have long been a fan of his, but I cannot ever forget how my Azorean teacher, guiding me through Portuguese conversation, dismissed him as a writer who needed "the dictatorship" and "war" to have something to write about. She was much more positive about other Portuguese writers like Jorge de Sena, Fernando Namora, and of course, José Saramago, who received the Nobel Prize.

‡. Friederike Mayröcker / Alexander Kluge - German-language writers haven't had to suffer long droughts in recent years, but these two are so original they deserve some kind of major honor. Mayröcker is an Austrian poet and playwright, while Kluge is a German fiction writer, philosopher and filmmaker. Their work looks like no one else's. Both are up there in years, so give it to both of the if one is even in the running.

‡. Cormac McCarthy - His prose is singular, his scope is narrow, and his work is most certainly not of an "idealistic" nature, which was Alfred Nobel's charge for the prize, but when McCarthy is on, he is really on. I should note that I am rereading The Road with my graduate seminar now, and it is even more moving than my first reading of it. Blood Meridian is one of the greatest and most disturbing American novels of the last 50 years too.

‡. Nicanor Parra - He is 102. (102!!!) His poems are scrumptious morsels that make you go Wow. He is a pioneer of "anti-poems." His oeuvre is considerable, inventive, and impressive. He should have received the Nobel Prize two decades ago.

‡. Adélia Prado - One of Brazil's leading poets, highly readable, a poet of daily life, desire, the soul laid bare, prolific, and the recipient of many national awards. Very consistent and consistently very good.

‡. Ngugi wa Thiong'o - A pioneering, politically engaged and prodigious writer who has transformed the landscape of African literature. An excellent choice.

‡. Ko Un - Again, I don't read Korean, but his name has popped up for years as a potential winner. He's a poet so that would be a plus no matter what.

‡. Jay Wright - If there were a prize solely for originality and daring, or for lyric excellence, Wright would have won it long ago. He is one of the main predecessors to poets like Nathaniel Mackey. He's 81....

‡. Raúl Zurita - One of the leading Latin American poets, highly original, compelling ironic and strange, and quite prolific. He also wrote against the Chilean dictatorship while living under it.

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