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Why the Internet thinks Philip Roth was robbed

Americans clamoring to know why Philip Roth hasn't won a Nobel seem to have missed a key fact: Maybe he's just not good enough.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Posted on Oct 10, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 10:39 am CDT

Was Philip Roth robbed? That’s the 8 million kroner question for Americans this week, as outraged citizens woke up on Thursday to learn that literary darling Philip Roth had, once again, been passed over for literature’s highest honor. Or, as one New Jersey newspaper put it, “Nobel Prize again eludes Newark native Philip Roth; award goes to Frenchman.” That Frenchman was Patrick Modiano, author of over 20 novels, most of which haven’t been translated into English. Franco-American tensions rear their ugly head once again, eh?

Infuriated Americans want to know why Roth wasn’t added to the eight Americans who have taken home the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901 (note: some overeager Americans like to claim 11 laureates, but the Nobel Committee considers Saul Bellow to be Canadian, while Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz were both born in Poland). For perspective, the only country that’s netted more Nobels in literature is, oddly enough, France; the United States is hardly letting the side down in the Nobel department

The rest of the world probably wants to know why Americans care so much; Roth is, after all, one among a sea of talented authors from around the world (210 writers were nominated this year, 36 for the first time), and it is worth reminding the reader that the committee considers nominees from every country, not just the United States. Furthermore, the literature prize can go to journalists, poets, playwrights, and other creators of the written word, not just novelists.

It is not difficult to find worthy candidates. There are many: the world is so big… The hard part is to select who will get it,” the Swedish Academy points out. In the same interview, Peter Englund notes that the group never fully agrees on a nomination, highlighting the fact that even within the body awarding the prize, there’s conflict. In those circumstances, it’s not surprising to see the committee settling on authors who are often unknown to people in the U.S., as authors Americans seem to widely agree are universal shoo-ins might not be seen that way by the jury members; many works are not available in translation here, and the rich literary world of the U.S. can make readers insular, wary of venturing outside U.S. borders. Even Canadian authors, also residents of North America, aren’t as beloved under the stars and stripes.

Englund also had a word of caution to Americans champing at the bit: “We do not see the prize as a popularity contest, but only care about finding worthy Laureates.” It genuinely doesn’t seem to have occurred to Americans that the reason Roth hasn’t won yet is because, just possibly, the jury that decides the matter hasn’t deemed him worthy. This could be considered blasphemy in the land of exceptionalism and apple pie, but it might explain why the rest of the world loves to mock Roth, and the U.S., every time he loses.

Apocryphally, Philip Roth expectantly travels from his home to his agent’s office in New York to sit by the phone every year, waiting for The Call (some versions place his lonely wait in a cafe); the jury attempts to contact honorees approximately half an hour before the news goes live. (Notably, honorees aren’t always notified in time, as occurred in 2007 with Doris Lessing, who seemed rather nonplussed by the news when journalists descended upon her for comment.) Each year, he dutifully treks back home after the phone resolutely refuses to ring.

Speculation swirls as to why Roth has yet to pick up the Nobel, and the Internet, bless its heart, cuts to the heart of the utter mystification from Americans and irritation from Europeans that surrounds the “snubs” dealt out by the committee.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, literary critic David L. Ulin has a rather sharp point: Maybe Roth hasn’t won because the world is a big place, and the jury itself tends to be highly Eurocentric on top of that. He also notes Modiano’s work speaks to the insecurities, confusions, and desires of the modern age, making it an ideal selection in a year of global confusion and identity crises:

[T]he selection of Modiano is perhaps most usefully regarded on its own terms. Certainly, identity, history, is the great subject of modernity, a reflection of the rootlessness so many of us feel. Cut loose from the past, staring down a future that is anything but certain, we are left with nothing but our evanescence, the overwhelming sense that there is nothing for us, that we cannot even, in any real way, say who we are.

Across the seas in Britain, Emma Brockes of the Guardian suggests that the Swedish may be involved in some sort of bizarre grudge match with Roth, deliberately withholding the award out of perversity. Her theory isn’t just grossly wrong; it’s deeply offensive to the talented writers who have won the prize over recent years, suggesting that they only won as part of an elaborate joke.

There’s another intriguing possibility: As backlash against the white old boys club in literary fiction grows in the literary world, it is conceivable that the committee is responding by rethinking how it allocates the awards. Englund has already publicly lamented the lack of winners producing other kinds of written works, like plays and poetry, but the committee may also be considering the larger issue of who is receiving notice in literature, and why.

While Modiano is indeed an older white man, seemingly a shining example of precisely the sort of person whom critics think are dominating the world of literature, his work is more complex than that, and unlike English-speaking writers, he doesn’t enjoy access to nearly the same swath of the market. Meanwhile, Roth joins the ranks of authors like DeLillo, Franzen, Amis, and McEwan, all of whom are widely regarded as unparalleled in their field, except by those who are interested in seeing some diversity in fiction. Being an old, famously grumpy white man isn’t necessarily an indicator of earthshattering literary talent, and many women authors in particular are tired of being pushed to the side under the demeaning labels of “women’s literature” and “chick lit.” Others point out that entire generations of writers are quietly overlooked entirely.

In 2012, Meg Wolitzer set off a firestorm with an opinion editorial in The New York Times arguing against the pigeonholing of women in fiction:

But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women ‘Women’s Fiction,’ as if men should have nothing to do with them.

Her commentary expressed a growing uncurrent of anger among women authors and readers about the tendency to refuse to acknowledge that women write literary fiction, which is precisely the category of literature that the Nobel committee is most likely to take seriously. That problem is only compounded for minority women; women of color, for example, find themselves shoved into the “Black fiction” shelf of the bookstore, say, while a lesbian author is on the “gay and lesbian” shelf even if her book has nothing to do with sexuality.

There is no “old white men” shelf at the bookstore. Or, rather, there is: You know it as “general fiction.”

Ulin also notes that 70 percent of honorees have been European, betraying an undoubted problem with the jury: It tends to focus on a very narrow representation of global literature, despite its best efforts and stated intentions. It doesn’t follow, however, that the jury is somehow neglecting American authors (Toni Morrison was the last American to win, in 1993). There are, after all, five other continents to consider, with a wealth of material coming from Asian, Australian, African, and South American authors, though it’s probably safe to assume that we won’t be seeing any Nobels for Antarctic writers anytime soon, unless Emperor penguins start doing more than starring in heartbreaking movies.

Critics of the Nobel Prize overall have pointed out that countries in the Global South have been significantly underrepresented when it comes to the awarding of Nobel Prizes, and the same holds true for the literature category: Wole Soyinka was the first African to win the prize, in 1980, while less than ten have gone to South American writers (starting in 1945 with Gabriela Mistral), while Asia has been similarly left out. These are entire continents, not just single nations, making the American obsession with racking up Nobel prizes like party favors all the more galling.

Just three nations, the U.S., Great Britain, and Germany, represent over half of Nobel winners overall, despite the fact that this is supposed to be a global award. Can the jury really be faulted for making an effort to consider a broader scope of candidates in literature? If anyone got robbed here, it was Patrick Modiano, whose justifiable honor has been overshadowed by the “loss” of a man who seems to think this is a competition.

If you’re not familiar with Modiano, you’re not alone. As is common with the Nobel Prize, he’s not widely known outside of limited literary circles. Peter Englund suggests that English-speaking readers start with Missing Person, which is probably his most well-known work available in English. It’s safe to assume that more of his work will enter translation thanks to his Nobel recognition and that along the way, Americans may come to understand why they don’t actually dominate the literary world.

Photo via Chris/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 10, 2014, 9:00 am CDT