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Book News: Why Don't (Even) More American Authors Win Nobels?

This undated photo provided by Sotheby's shows the 1950 Nobel Prize medal awarded to William Faulkner and a draft of his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize in Literature.
This undated photo provided by Sotheby's shows the 1950 Nobel Prize medal awarded to William Faulkner and a draft of his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize in Literature.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • In a world where major literary prizes are often dominated by Americans, the Nobel Prize in Literature has historically been very slightly less dominated by Americans. Although France is the only country to have won more literature Nobels than the U.S., critics complain every year that Americans are snubbed by the world's biggest literary prize. Bloomberg's Hephzibah Anderson complains of "the perversity of this enduring snub to the likes of Roth, Oates, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy." And in The New Yorker, Ian Crouch asks, "Why don't more Americans win the Nobel prize?" He puts it down to European snobbery: "The Swedes had decided that we were, as Sinclair Lewis remarked back in 1930, still 'a puerile backwoods clan.' " But Teju Cole argues that these complaints are short-sighted: "Population-wise, the US should win once in 20 years. It averages once a decade, and still feels an injustice has been done." And in Time, Radhika Jones writes, "I am baffled by the chorus that rises with every autumnal equinox, of American critics lobbying for American writers. They lobby for Philip Roth. They lobby for Joyce Carol Oates. They lobby for Bob Dylan. These are fine writers, all of them, and at least one of them can sing, and patriotism is a virtue. But the Nobel is not a moment for American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it's one of the few occasions when we Americans can trust to not have our own cultural products lobbed back to us. We should hope to be served something different." The – undoubtedly controversial — winner of the prize will be announced on Thursday morning.
  • Literary agent Andrew Wylie gave an interview to The New Republic in which — sounding like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen's Lady Catherine de Bourgh — he compares Amazon to the Emperor Napoleon and says he would do business with the company only if it had one of his children kidnapped. On his business model, Wylie says, "Instead of being intimate like a massage parlor, we should be able to expand infinitely, like a Borgesian library. The idea is to be able to maintain the same level of service for a growing number of clients. We don't need to diversify." He adds, "The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It's Hermès. It's selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money." Hear that, O fractious, knuckle-dragging proletariat? Andrew Wylie doesn't need you.
  • For Nieman Storyboard, Gay Talese annotates his legendary Esquire profile "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold," which is credited with being one of the foundational works of New Journalism. Talese says that in his nonfiction, "what I wanted to do, in imitation of the writers I used to devour — Irwin Shaw, John Cheever, John O'Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald — was to tell short stories."
  • Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox" won the BBC short story prize, which is worth £15,000 (about $24,000). Hear an excerpt of the story about a woman who turns into a fox, on BBC4: "The woods begin to thicken, oak and beech. A jay flaps across the thicket. Sophia turns her head sharply in the direction of its flight. She begins to walk strangely on the tips of her toes, her knees bent, her heels lifted. Then she leans forward, and in a keen awkward position begins to run." The chairwoman of the judges, Mariella Frostrup, said, "From the outset of our deliberations we were all seduced by our winning story. The poetic use of language, the dexterity and originality of the prose made Mrs Fox utterly unique."
  • In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart spoke about her new memoir and the best advice she's ever gotten: "My mom said to me, 'Elizabeth, what this man has done to you, it's terrible, there aren't words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has stolen nine months of your life from you that you will never get back. But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy, is to move forward with your life and to do exactly what you want to do. ... The best thing you can do is move forward because by feeling sorry for yourself and holding on to what's happened, that's only allowing him more power and more control over your life, and he doesn't deserve another second. So be happy.' "
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.

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