Saturday, March 19, 2011

Will an Australian writer win the Nobel Prize anytime soon?

First of all, let’s begin by noting that both Australia and the Nobel Prize for literature have had their profiles affected by the geopolitical changes of the past thirty years. The end of the Cold War, as Australian ambassador to Washington The Hon. Kim Beazley noted at the AAALS/ANZSANA conference dinner in Austin, has brought new visibility to Australia, which now seems more central than peripheral in a more networked and globalized world where the portability of the English language counts for more--and where Australia's position on the rim of the Indian Ocean littoral matters more geopolitically. The Nobel Prize, if anything, has become a bit less important. In the Cold War, it was watched as a signal for whether a pro-American or pro-Soviet writer would get the prize; Sweden's proclaimed neutrality made the Prize that much more of a barometer (more than the peace prize, always located in US-allied Norway). Also, many other international prizes have emerged, some, lay the Booker catering more specifically to the preferences of an Anglophone readership.

Nonetheless, no one doubts that the Nobel Prize is still tremendously important, the world' sliding award in both monetary value and prestige a writer can earn. Is it time for an Australian writer to win it? Of course, Patrick White won in 1973. That was one if not two generations ago. over and above that, though, there is a sense that the award to White is not 'enough' for Australia, that another Prize is deserved by virtue of what Australian literature has achieved. White, so definitively a modern rather than postmodern writer, sits uneasily with contemporary prize culture, The Vivisector failing to win the 'lost Booker' for 1970, awarded in 2010, even though he was the only Nobel laureate on the list. The generation after White may be said to have produced a 'new Australian' literature', at once more national and more portable than White's vision, and also a far larger audience, both within and outside Australia, is interested in 'Australian writers’ as a concept. The speculation about an Australian Nobel Prize winner that comes up every year may be read as an index both of the sense there are deserving Australian writers and that, if there is such a thing, world literary opinion would find an Australian winner congenial.

But is it Australia's turn? For those who believe Nobel Prize winners are awarded on a political or sentimental basis, Australia does not seem the most promising candidate.  From the Japanese earthquake to the Arab revolts, other places in the world have made more news than Australia--an echo of Australia’s handicap during the Cold War era, its perceived lack of "relevance." Of course, writers, not nations, win prizes, and some recent winners, such as J. M. Coetzee (now living in Australia--so in a loose sense we may have already had our second Aussie laureate!), Mario Vargas Llosa, Gao Xingjian, Herta Müller are, in different ways, transnational figures who evade a simple national definition. Of course, Australian literature has itself become more transnational--there is no possibility, for instance, of Peter Carey not getting the Prize because he lives in New York--but that a writer would win out of simple affirmation of their nation is less likely than before, especially as, once again, the Prize is not used to tell which way the wind is blowing politically the way it was during the Cold War.

There are some impediments in the way of a new Aussie winner. Canada and New Zealand, the two countries with which Australia is most compared, have obvious candidates in Margaret Atwood and Witi Ihimaera; Atwood's candidacy seems to be especially strong and I am honestly surprised she has not got it yet. Several important countries or constituencies--Israel, the Arab world, Japan, Spain--have also not had a Nobel literature laureate for over a generation. No writer who composes in the Korean, Dutch, or any of the Baltic languages has ever won the Prize. Moreover, several elderly writers long seen as candidates--Yves Bonnefoy, Philip Roth, Carlos Fuentes--may be sentimental favorites in their final years on the scene. The Nobel Prize is not an efficient prize, i. e. not everybody who deserves it gets it. Some do not for political or personal reasons, but some do not simply because the clock runs out on their candidacy--the Prize cannot be given posthumously. Such deserving writers as Jaan Kross, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Bo Carpelan, and Vizma Belševica did not win simply for this reason.

Australian writers who have been mentioned recently as Prize candidates include Peter Carey, David Malouf, Gerald Murnane, and Les Murray. Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Shirley Hazzard, and Brian Castro also might be thought to have plausible chances. I will assess each of these candidates in the months ahead but please feel free to suggest your own possibilities by commenting below!

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