The pretty good, the somewhat dubious, and the very dubious Nobel Prizes for Literature

Having spent the week here writing about fiction written by Ôe Kenzaburo has solidified my skepticism that he deserved a Nobel Prize for literature. I think that the first Japanese to receive the honor. Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), was a plausible candidate for the honor in 1968, though were it my choice of a Japanese writer alive during the 1960s I would have chosen Tanizaki Junichiro (who had died before the 1968 award went to Kawabata) or Mishima Yukio. In contrast, I don’t have a stronger contender among Japanese writers, ca. 2018 (not having read the Japanese-German Tawada Yoko). The Japanese writer recurrently mentioned more recently as a possible candidate, Murakami Haruki (1949-) had published some books that received international attention (A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood) but did not have a large body of work.

From the Japanese contenders, I went to look at the list of all the winners. I have split the ones I have read enough of to have an opinion into three classes (each listed in the chronological order of their award):

Choices I consider plausible or better (inclusion in this category is far from being an endorsement of all of their work, however!)

Rudyard Kipling

Selma Lagerlöf

Rabindranath Tagore

Knut Hamsum

W.B. Yeats

George Bernard Shaw

Thomas Mann

Sinclair Lewis

Ivan Bunin

Luigi Pirandello

Eugene O’Neill

Roger Martin du Gard

Herman Hesse

André Gide

T. S. Eliot

William Faulkner

Pär Lagerkvist

Ernest Hemingway

Halldór Laxness

Juan Ramôn Jiménez

Albert Camus

Boris Pasternak

Ivo Anrdic

John Steinbeck

Jean-Paul Sartre

Miguel Asturias

Kawabata Yasunari

Pablo Neruda

Heinrich Böll

Patrick White

Eugenio Montale

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Czelaw Milosz

Elias Canetti

Gabriel García Marquez

Joseph Brodsky

Naguib Mahfouz

Octavio Paz

Seamus Heaney

J. M. Coetzee

Harold Pinter

Mario Vargas Llosa

Alice Munro

Svetlana Alexievich

Bob Dylan


Choices about which I am at least somewhat skeptical

Henry Skieniewicz

Maurice Materlinck

Romain Rolland

Anatole France

Henri Bergson

John Galsworthy

Bertrand Russell

François Mauriac

Winston Churchill

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Samuel Beckett

Saul Bellow

Claude Simon

Wole Soyinka

Nadine Gordimer

Toni Morrison

Ôe Kenzaburo

José Saramago

Günter Grass

Gao Xingjian

V.S. Naipaul

Orhan Pamuk

Doris Lessing

J.M.G. Le Ciézio

Kazou Ishiguro


Bad choices

Pearl Buck

Mikhail Sholokhov

William Golding

Dario Fo

Imre Kertész

Herta Müller

Mo Yan

Patrick Modiano

There are an additional 38 winner about whom I know too little to have formed an opinion of their worth.

By my (generous) reckoning, the Swedish Academy is batting .635 (or .420 if the denominator includes winners from whom I’ve read nothing), but only .333 in the last ten years (not scoring a Swedish poet I’ve never read)

Some of the failures (sins of omission rather than commission) include Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Henry James, William James, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, August Strinberg, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Natsume Sōseki, Rainer Marie Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginian Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Svevo, Bertholt Brecht, E.M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, R. K. Narayan, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Pramoedya Ananta Toer,Michel Tournier, Chinua Achebe, and Peter Matthiessen.

My prime still-living candidate is Michael Ondatjee, followed by Yu Hua (pictured left to right below). I’d be fine with Louise Erdrich and/or Tom Stoppard and/or Peter Cameron winning—after them. If Murakami wins, he’ll go into my second bundle of winners.


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