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. 1994. 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!)
George Bernard Shaw
Roger Martin du Gard
T. S. Eliot
Juan Ramôn Jiménez
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Gabriel García Marquez
J. M. Coetzee
Mario Vargas Llosa
Choices about which I am at least somewhat skeptical
J.M.G. Le Ciézio
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, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Svevo, Bertholt Brecht, E.M. Forster, W. H. Auden, 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 winning—after them. If Murakami wins, he’ll go into my second bundle of winners.