Tuesday, October 06, 2015

America's Next Top Nobel Laureate

I have a longstanding bet with myself which admittedly has no stakes since it's with myself, but I do ponder each year which will ultimately prove true.  I typically debate between whether or not the United States will win the honor of hosting an upcoming Olympics first or whether an American will be named the victor of the Nobel Prize in Literature next.  Both last happened in the mid-90's (Salt Lake City won in 1995, Toni Morrison in 1993), and both seem to be always possible, but never quite plausible.  Chicago missing out in 2016 was coupled with the recent victory of Alice Munro (a Canadian, therefore dismissing the idea that a North American hasn't won in a while).  Still, while we know well in advance if the United States has a legitimate contender for an Olympics (come on 2028!), the candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature are kept a tight secret, and who has actually recently been close is always up for debate.

However, predicting awards is one of my favorite things to do, and I don't know that there's a more pleasurable game to play than predicting which American is most likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (even saying the below names is a delight), so I've taken it upon myself to do some research and come up with the ten most likely candidates for the award below.  All of these authors meet the criteria for winning (notable living writers born in the United States).  Without further adieu...

10. Joan Didion
Born: December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California
Signature Work: The Year of Magical Thinking
No Stranger to Awards: She's won the National Book Award, as well as the National Medal of Arts and Humanities
Going for Her: Didion was a name my friend Gwen and I thought of as we were trying to complete this list, finding a tenth author that didn't seem like a drop-off in quality, and Didion definitely fits the bill.  She's wildly successful, particularly late in her career which is a change-of-pace from some of the other authors on this list (not to mention, quite frankly, Toni Morrison), and is someone who adds something new to the list considering the deeply personal nature of her writing.
Going Against Her: The Nobel committee is more reliant on authors of fiction (it's rare that they go for a memoirist or a journalist, rather than someone who is a novelist or poet), and Didion's peak fame is so recent (by Nobel standards) it might be seen as jumping on the bandwagon and risk being a flash-in-the-pan.

9. Jonathan Franzen
Born: August 17, 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois
Signature Work: The Corrections
No Stranger to Awards: He won the National Book Award for The Corrections, as well as was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.  He also appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the title "Great American Novelist" and was also an Oprah Book Club selection.  Perhaps you remember?
Going for Him: Franzen is surely someone that will be on lists like this for decades, provided his health holds.  He's the exact sort of author the Nobel Committee clamors for, with a novel roughly twice a decade and every one of his books being hailed as an event.  His novels The Corrections and Freedom both were landmarks, and I have another personal bet with myself over whether it will be Franzen or Ian McEwan that wins the Nobel first (I think McEwan, but I suspect they'll both do it).
Going Against Him: Franzen's kind of a jackass, which can't help him in this regard though it doesn't preclude him, as jackasses have won this award in the past.  Perhaps more damning is his relative youth.  While authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez have won the prize at a younger age, recipients tend to be older.  Franzen will have other chances.

8. Don DeLillo
Born: November 20, 1936 in New York City
Signature Work: White Noise
No Stranger to Awards: DeLillo has won the National Book Award, as well as was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Going for Him: The Nobel Committee occasionally likes to pick troupers, novelists who have long been part of the literary community but who haven't always been headliners (lest we forget, the likes of Marcel Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald never picked up the Nobel).  DeLillo, long considered one of the great men of letters who admittedly never took the center stage in the way that, say, John Updike did, would be an interesting choice, and while he is pretty private, my hunch is he'd still show up to win the prize.
Going Against Him: He's not a flashy choice-if you're going to choose an American and deal with the press of such a thing, why not go with someone more well-known and less press-shy?  Additionally, DeLillo's work post-Underworld has shown a marked decline, and authors rarely win old-age awards; they usually are victorious when they are still producing high-quality prose.

7. Rita Dove
Born: August 28, 1952 in Akron, Ohio
Signature Work: Thomas and Beulah
No Stranger to Awards: Dove has won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Medal of the Arts and was the first African-American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Going for Her: The Nobel Committee isn't shy about giving the award to poets, and Dove is arguably the most well-known living American poet upon the death of Maya Angelou.  Dove's won almost every accolade you can think of for a poet except the Nobel, and as the first African-American poet to win the Nobel, the diversity that the committee values could help her in this regard (the Nobel Committee for Literature is famous for its value on diverse perspectives).
Going Against Her: Dove is more nationally famous in literary circles and less internationally recognized, so it would be a bit of a surprise if they went with her.  In addition, her most famous work came over two decades ago and she perhaps peaked a little earlier than she should have (timing is a rough one for the Nobel Committee in this regard).

6. Philip Roth
Born: March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey
Signature Work: Portnoy's Complaint
No Stranger to Awards: Roth has won every major literary award in the United States: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (twice), the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), and the Pen/Faukner Award (thrice).
Going for Him: Come on here-this is the Everest of people who should have this award.  Roth is considered by the plurality, if not the majority, of serious-minded readers as the greatest living author.  His novels stand amongst the most important of a living author, he's a groundbreaking artist, and definitely one of those names that will show up eternally on "can you believe they never won the Nobel?" lists if he doesn't end up with the prize.
Going Against Him: He's Philip Roth and 82-years-old.  If he was going to win, wouldn't he have done it by now?  Retired, proclaiming the death of the novel, and at this point a question mark over whether he'd even show up, Roth is someone that should have this award, but probably never will.  Still, he's too big of a luminary to cut from a countdown while he still is amongst us.

5. Thomas Pynchon
Born: May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York
Signature Work: Gravity's Rainbow
No Stranger to Awards: He's won the National Book Award, and was due the Pulitzer Prize (he won the jury's vote unanimously for Gravity's Rainbow), but the Pulitzer board dismissed their decision so Pynchon went home empty-handed.
Going for Him: Well, no one's going to argue that Thomas Pynchon doesn't stand-alone in the literary community.  Novels like Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 have entered the lexicon in ways few living authors have been able to do, and Pynchon's is a genius that is quite singular-there's never been anyone quite like him in the literary world (maybe if Salinger had actually decided to publish something at some point he might have come close), and like Roth he'll likely show up on lists of missed opportunities for the Nobel Committee.
Going Against Him: Honestly, if they could actually get him to show up I think he'd win by unanimous consent.  The infamously reclusive author makes Cormac McCarthy look like Kim Kardashian-it's hard to imagine the Nobel Committee giving the award to a man who will never show up, and possibly not even acknowledge the award (or more damning, mock it through a New York Times editorial).

4. Louise Erdrich
Born: June 7, 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota
Signature Work: Love Medicine
No Stranger to Awards: Erdrich has won the National Book Award, and also was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Going for Her: Erdrich would make history if she were to win (she'd be the first Native-American author to win the award), a huge accomplishment and something the committee might be looking into; Erdrich's career has never been hotter, quite frankly (her National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination both came in the past ten years, despite decades of being a signature figure in the literary world), and a long career with a lot of momentum could be a solid recipe for success with the Nobel Committee.  She's my wild card on the list.
Going Against Her: Is she famous enough?  Admittedly the Nobel Committee occasionally exhaustively combs through a nation trying to find a notable author and picks someone no one in the international literary community has heard of, but Erdrich triumphing over Roth?  Over McCarthy?  It seems pretty David and Goliath, and generally the American winners have been more famous than she is.

3. Cormac McCarthy
Born: July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island
Signature Work: Blood Meridian
No Stranger to Awards: McCarthy, like Philip Roth, has basically won it all: the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award are all on his shelf.
Going for Him: Name me a more celebrated American novelist of the past fifteen years.  Seriously, between No Country for Old Men (which went on to be a masterpiece cinematically) and The Road, McCarthy's novels have become landmarks in the literary canon, and he proves that authors continue to make compelling, interesting work decades after they initially come onto the scene.
Going Against Him: Doesn't it feel like this should have happened about 4-5 years ago?  I know the Nobel Committee is occasionally slow to react to trends, but McCarthy was such a big deal for so long, frequently showing up on "greatest American novelists of all-time" lists every chance authors could get, and for a brief moment there his reclusive nature was completely out-the-window, doing interviews for Time Magazine and Oprah Winfrey.  He could still win, but at 82 the window is getting shorter and shorter.

2. Marilynne Robinson

Born: November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho
Signature Work: Housekeeping
No Stranger to Awards: Robinson has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.  She also won the National Humanities Medal in 2012.
Going for Her: Robinson is one of those authors who somehow manages to keep pumping out critically-acclaimed and celebrated novels even without the added benefit of movies being made of her films or the celebrity of a Philip Roth.  Her work is religiously-inspired, which I think might be something the Nobel Committee thinks stands out (she's by far the most drawn to her faith in her writing of any author on this list), and she's also had a major impact in her 60's and 70's in the literary community with Gilead and Lila.  No one can argue that she isn't producing some of the most important work of her career right now.
Going Against Her: While being prolific has its downside (see Number 1 on this list), Robinson only has four novels.  That's hardly the sort of thing that wins a Nobel, even if one of those novels is Housekeeping.  Could someone with such a short bibliography win the Nobel?

1. Joyce Carol Oates

Born: June 16, 1938 in Lockport, New York
Signature Work: them
No Stranger to Awards: She's won the National Book Award, as well as the National Humanities Medal, and though she's never won, she's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize five times.
Going for Her: Everything?  She's an icon in the world of letters (who doesn't like Joyce Carol Oates?) who continues to write vociferously and continues to have ardent reviews (one of those Pulitzer Prize nominations happened this past year).
Going Against Her: Productivity?  Honestly that's all I can think of since she's overdue for the Nobel.  There's a stigma against writers who produce a gargantuan body of work, and with nearly fifty novels to her name, Oates has definitely surpassed the body of work of almost every other novelist on this list combined.  Oates has cleverly made fun of this in the past ("more titles and I might as well give up all hopes of a 'reputation'"), but it could be what's holding her back.

And there you have it folks-my guesses for the most likely American candidates to win the Nobel Prize this week.  We'll find out Thursday who is the victor, but in the meantime make some guesses, and share your favorite authors/books on this list (and those of you who are fans of the likes of Anne Tyler or Michael Cunningham or another missing name, you should chastise me in the comments if you'd like)!

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