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All I Have to Say About the Nobel

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The Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced tomorrow and, as usual, a lot of people are getting their panties in a knot about it. And I hear people complain all the time about the Nobel never having been awarded to such greats as Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Borges. As if the Nobel Prize matters, as if it means something. As if the list of past winners wasn't full of the forgotten, the unnotable and those whose cultural esteem has long since fallen into disregard. I can't imagine getting all that emotional about who wins and who doesn't. (In fact, there are very few awards I have any kind of strong feelings about.) Or, as Doris Lessing summed up so deftly when she was told she had won, "I couldn't care less."

Who Cares About the Nobel Prize?

One of the things that has had the lit blogosphere all abuzz is the Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl's remarks that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," indicating that an American writer would not be getting the big prize this year. People are up in arms, saying that the Nobel Prize committee has "no clue" about American literature. However, to me the whole thing begs a larger question. Why do we care who wins a Nobel, anyway?

Over and over again, we hear the litany of great 20th century writers who never received the prize; Joyce, Kafka, Nabokov, etc. The implication in this list is that the Nobel has to go to writers who really matter and when it doesn't it's some kind of great tragedy. Yet, looking back on the list of laureates past, does it really seem like the creme de la creme is always represented? Sure, you've got Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Mann, Eugene O'Neil and Gabrial Garcia Márquez. But you've also got dozens of names that even the extremely well-read will have never heard of, and also writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, whose star has long since fallen. There's even the occasional touch of the ridiculous, as with the award to Winston Churchill.

Why are we so hung up on awards? If you win one, you have it appended to your name; Jack Nicholson is now Academy Award-Winner Jack Nicholson. Likewise, José Saramago is really Nobel Laureate José Saramago, as if the award conferred some kind of divine rechristening like God changing the name of Abram. Yet, at the same time it's common to debate whether someone deserved an award, whether there were politics involved, whether the award-givers were trying to make some kind of statement. And when someone disagrees with an award, out comes the declamation "Awards are meaningless," to be widely agreed with by all within earshot.

Why do we care if the Nobel people don't understand our American literature? Most of America doesn't understand American literature at this point. Don't we have bigger things to worry about?