Authors that Should Have Received The Nobel Prize for Literature (But Didn’t)
Like the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest honor an author can receive, with the added distinction of being an award for a lifetime of work, which comes with a cash prize of a cool million. And like the Oscars, the decision-making process when it comes to picking the recipient can seem capricious, petty, or downright bizarre, and many of the best authors of the last century lost that prize to inferior (in my view) contemporaries, or were simply ignored. Why don’t you make this list longer, as surely it can go on forever, by adding your own in comments!
1. Jorge Luis Borges
A fairly notorious case of the Swedish Academy ignoring an author for their political beliefs, Borges was turned down time and time again for the prize, for his conservative political views and support of South American dictatorships the fervor of which, perhaps over-exaggerated by his critics. A list of those authors influenced by Borges would include all South American writers, all science-fiction and fantasy writers (including, arguably, Tolkien), all postmodern writers and some modern ones, and perhaps any authors whose fiction contains a tiger, a mirror, a maze, or any combination of the three. Generally, the decision to pass over Borges for the award is reason numero uno that many consider the Academy to be out of touch with prevailing literary opinion, and a quarter century after his death the omission still raises hackles.
2. W.H. Auden
Auden, who was one of the best poets in the English language and one of the few Modernists to actually deal with modernity instead of treating it as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, was allegedly passed over because he made some rather scandalous remarks about Dag Hammarskjold. Since the Academy is comprised entirely of Swedes, you can see where this might have been a miscalculation on Auden’s part if he’d really desired the prize.
3. Vladimir Nabokov
Best known for a novel that inspired a song by The Police, Nabokov was hugely influential among high-minded writers everywhere, and wrote in a style that expressed both a great deal of wit and playfulness while still being dense and rigorous as anyone could imagine. While Borges was perhaps more influential in terms of style and theme, Nabokov set the high-water mark for four generations of authors after him. He was nominated once but two Swedish authors took it home that year instead. Both those authors were on the deciding committee.
4. Graham Greene
Another also-ran, Greene probably confused the political-minded Academy with his eclectic beliefs, which combined strident (even if often laissez-faire,) Catholicism with secular humanism and a flirtation with Socialism. Greene, who wrote about ugly characters in ugly situations, grappled with the problems of suffering and unhappiness and, although he depicted many characters that wanted badly to be good and just, his books are filled with ambivalence and confusion in the face of evil. The effect of all this is that his world is rather bleak and unlikable, but that’s the point.
5. Mark Twain
Mark Twain was passed over for the prize not once, not twice, but ten times. From my understanding, he really could have used the money.
6. Joan Didion
Didion’s work, whether fiction or truth, sheds more light on the trends, culture, aspirations, and interior life of 20th Century America than practically anyone else I care to name. Her prose is lucid, clear, and spare, and at times it touches a rare perfection in her prosody. And, as anyone who has read her knows, she is unbelievably brutal; painful, heartbreaking disenchanting and sometimes just plain mean. The Academy probably has no plans to offer her the award any time soon.
7. Haruki Murakami
An author who has blossomed into an international superstar of mind-boggling proportions, and one that has become an icon for the protean, conflicted, deeply imaginative character of modern Japanese culture. He’s still young(ish) so he might get it some day, but his serious-minded contemporary Kenzaburo Oe already scored the award a little while ago, so don’t count on it.
8. Thomas Hardy
What do the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster have that Thomas Hardy’s don’t? Answer: brief glimmers of happiness. Thomas Hardy is best remembered as a Naturalist writer, but I think his work contains elements of the Gothic as well as a sense of transcendentalism that is often overlooked. Life is tough in a Hardy novel, but that’s because it’s tough in real life too. Hardy never pulled his punches and endured scandal for it. He deserved the award doubly, since his career as a poet was as fruitful as his career as a novelist.
9. Robert Graves
Though he was, in my opinion, a second-rate scholar, Graves defined the genre of the historical novel and wrote some of the best of them, when not writing otherwise on every subject under the sun, and some, like his quasi-fictitious White Goddess, under the moon. Graves’ status as a polymath, as well as his fearless unconventionality, honesty, and the evocation of the wonder and mystery of the human experience should have won him the prize. But didn’t.
10. Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon is one of my favorite authors, perhaps the greatest American author of all time, even if his books are impossible to figure out, frequently obscene and loaded to the gills with lame jokes, shaggy dog stories, and esoteric minutiae so lovingly detailed it takes several Ph.D’s to know what is going on. But, even if that doesn’t win accolades, he’s gotten a lot more lucid with his later novels and people are actually starting to figure out what he’s talking about. Plus, he wrote ‘A Journey in to the Mind of Watts’, which is regarded as one of the best essays written on race in 1960’s America. If he ever did get the award, it would mean he would have to leave his Salingeresque seclusion and actually make a public appearance, something he has never done in his career. Here’s hoping.
[Unsolicited, Somewhat Related Editor’s Note: The only writer since 1901 who refused to accept the prize for Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre. You’re probably not surprised. Good. I hate to break it to Kevin, but Pynchon, if he were to win, would probably follow suit. Which would be appropriate. In lieu of the cash prize, however, (which would be the real pity to waste,) all he’d have to do is sell his toilet on ebay. ]
8 responses to “Kevin Makes Another List”
So much interesting info. I am amazed. Thanks Kevin. I love the photos too.
Your list was superb and very illuminating. I’m busy now trying to think who I would add to your list. I’ll get back to you.
OK. I thought of one who should have won before he passed away.
Jorge Amado – brilliant Brazilian novelist (Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Gabriella Clove and Cinnamon, & Tieta to name a few) who wrote of small town life in Bahia with wit, zest, and eloquence.
Kevin, please do more lists!
Great list, Kevin. I always look forward to reading your most interesting posts.
The most obvious early omission would be Joseph Conrad. Later distinguished authors are Andre Breton, and later, Marguerite Duras and Julio Cortozar. They would never have awarded it to William S. Burroughs, which is exactly why he deserved it. If Pynchon doesn’t win it soon we will know to pay no more attention to the Nobel Prize.
Matt, I just pictured Breton accepting the prize and chocked on my bagel.
The Swedes ignoring W. H. Auden is like the Academie Francaise refusing to admit Paul Verlaine. I mean really, how many of the people who made these decisions are even footnotes compared to those they excluded? As for the paranoidissimo Pynchon stepping up to receive an award…. That would make a great indie film (of an alternate reality).