(Sante’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 10/13.)
The Swedish Academy’s mid-October announcement regarding literature seldom fails to occasion second-guessing, if not outrage. Whenever a foreign writer mostly unknown to English speakers is awarded the Nobel, a certain constituency will suggest that the Swedes are trolling us. Whenever someone who is already a household name across the world gets it, a different faction is crestfallen, because he or she did not need the publicity. This has presumably been going on since Sully Prudhomme took it away in 1901, his honeyed verses to dance forevermore on every child’s lips.
Bob Dylan was awarded the big prize this morning, and my social-media timeline has been alive with indignation ever since. The Nobel did not go to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, did not go to Ursula K. LeGuin, did not go to an overlooked novelist in a small country working in a seldom-translated language. But even more people are upset that the prize went to a “songwriter.” Some of those same people are still grousing that last year it was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a “journalist.” They have decided, for whatever reasons, that song lyrics and non-fictional prose do not qualify as literature. Which would come as a surprise to most writers before the mid-eighteenth century or so, although they have the disadvantage of being dead.