This morning the CNN ticker said "German writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature." I assumed this is shorthand for "German-writer-so-0bscure-we-can't-even-mention-the-name-lest-confusion-reign-over-the-breakfast-tables-0f-America," and I kind of groaned, but I wasn't really surprised. Quick, name last year's winner. Now, name the last winner you'd actually heard of (Doris Lessing, 2007). Now, name the last American. (Toni Morrison, 1993). Now, name the last Canadian. (Oops.) Mexican. (Octavio Paz, 1990.) South American (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1982.) I will say that Herta Muller, this year's winner, may be a great writer and the fact that I don't know much about her may be a sad example of a lack of interest by American publishers in European writing. She also seems to have maintained the integrity of her art under a brutal political system in Romania and I suppose that's what led the Nobel committee to her. But I have to say I don't understand why the Nobel committe seems to think that standing up to a brutal political system in 20th century Europe is the defining test of whether a writer is worthy of the world's top literary prize. This same theme, more or less, is explored by 6 out of the 12 most recent winners, including Dario Fo, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Imre Kertesz, Elfriede Jelinek and even, by extension of the same kind of regime to South Africa, J.M. Coetzee. Suppose you are unfortunate enough to have been born in a democracy, and to want to write books that take on serious themes, including identity, modernity, sexuality, racism, consumerism, and myriad other complications of culture? Well, I guess you can't ever expect to win a Nobel Prize for it. If only John Updike could have gone to prison! If only the Canadian government would get off its ass and start persecuting Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro! That's probably their only hope of ever getting the Nobel Committee to notice them.
Incidentally, Toni Morrison is the only living American Nobelist. The most recent American winner before her (not counting Joseph Brodsky, who as a political exile wrote mainly in Russian and about Russian life) was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won in 1978. A quick glance at the Nobel roster would lead to the inescapable conclusion that the United States, as a country, has not produced any long-lasting or interesting literature, particularly in the last 25 years, and has minimal influence on the rest of the world. As for the other American nations, well, really, do they even have moveable type south of the Tropic of Cancer? Canada? Canada? What language do they speak there?
Can't wait for next year. Somewhere in middle Europe, an overlooked writer is sharpening his goose-feather quill pen in anticipation of the fact that a poem making fun of Stalin which he hand-printed in 1955 could launch him into the big show in Stockholm.