Nobel snubs Dylan for lit laurel as the Swedes pick — surprise! — a Swede.
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Two days ago, after British bookmakers elevated Bob Dylan to frontrunner status, I mounted an argument against giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to a singer/songwriter, a position that inspired a lively argument in the comments section.
My position basically is that while Dylan is a genius, the Nobel should be reserved for writers in traditional literary genres (fiction, poetry, drama). Not only do such authors need the attention more than Bob does, but genre distinctions are worth preserving.
Those arguing in favor of Bob’s literary ascendancy, some of them not only impassioned but also eloquent, argue that Dylan broke barriers and bridged gaps, and, given his cultural influence and the quality of at least some of his lyrics, deserves the prize more than anyone.
But now that the prize has gone to Tomas Transtromer, the whole Dylan-for-Nobel thing, quite apart from the arguments on either side, looks like a fever dream. Really, what were the British bettors thinking when they ran up the odds on Dylan?
A) Bob is American. The Swedish Academy, which gives out the Nobel Prize, has demonstrated in recent years a haughty anti-Americanism bordering on the spiteful. The low point came in 2008, when Nobel pooh-bah Horace Engdahl derided U.S. literary culture for its “insularity” and “ignorance.” Things haven’t improved since, with American writers like Philip Roth given little chance, no matter how deserving.
B) This year, especially, Bob stood no chance. That’s because one of the leading candidates is a Swedish poet few people outside of Scandinavia have ever heard of. As this nicely barbed story in the Telegraph notes, Swedish writers have won the literary Nobel a ridiculously disproportionate number of times.
Indeed, with a population under 10 million (or roughly the same as Michigan or Georgia), Sweden has taken home the prize nine out of 110 times. Or I should say, kept the prize at home.
Who are those “mighty masters” of literature, as the Telegraph’s Philip Henscher calls them? Bjornsterne Bjornson, Selma agerlof, Verner von Heidenstam, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Par Lagerkvist, Nelly Sachs, Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson.
“Time has shown every single Swedish winner of the prize to be ‘a little phenomenon of no interest’ outside their own country,” Henscher observes. I share his snark.
In the same period these Nordic non-entities were taking the grandest literary prize in the known universe, a few pretty good writers were overlooked. See if you’ve read any of them:
Mark Twain, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Frost, Marcel Proust, W.H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Lowell, John Updike, Joseph Conrad, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, Henry James, Edith Wharton…
I could go on: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Alberto Moravia, Philip Larkin, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Muriel Spark, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Miller… Okay, I’ll stop. You get the point.
Will Transtromer beat the Nobel curse to become the first Swedish winner who is not soon forgotten? I wouldn’t bet on it. Here’s a Transtromer haiku, courtesy of Henscher: “My happiness swelled/and the frogs sang in the bogs/of Pomerania.”
The bogs of Pomerania, indeed. Okay, I know it’s not fair to mock a writer on the basis of a few words rendered in translation, but I’m not feeling like fair today. If you want fair, go to The New York Times for an assessment of Transtromer’s career, or here for a couple of full-length poems in translation.
The last American awarded the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. My bet: The Cubs will take the World Series before the next American brings home a Nobel. Which is to say, possibly never.
But still, I must add: Better Transtromer than Dylan. At least we will ever see Transtromer on TV, in a creepy Victoria Secrets commercial.