I’ve Got a Theory About the Nobel Prize in Literature

Amidst all the hubbub about the government shutdown and the Breaking Bad finale, America allowed something terrible to happen: A Canadian won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the second time ever. (Did everyone else know Saul Bellow was Canadian?)

Alice Munro is a fine writer, surely. But she’s not Nobel Prize-worthy. The Prize is meant to reward the author who has written “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” usually taken to mean a corpus that advances not only the field of literature but also the human condition. I don’t pretend to be an expert in contemporary literature (well, sometimes, but mostly just as a party trick), and a part of my indignance is surely bred from ignorance. But who in the hell can read Munro’s work and think that she, more than any other living writer, embodies the spirit of idealism and the progression towards a greater understanding of the human condition? If you’re going to go for a female Canadian prose writer, at least pick Margaret Atwood, who I can’t stand but is at least determined to say something (and is probably the most liberal writer alive, in fitting with the Selection Committee’s leaning).

Munro’s stories seem made to occupy anthologies used in college short story writing classes, rather than any sort of lasting canon. I’d read a few of her stories prior to the announcement, and in the past week have tried to muscle through a few more. I can recognize her talent and appreciate what she does for the craft. But her work lacks any sense of immediacy or urgency. It feels like a flower arrangement. She’s quite skilled in using the tools of language available to her to create a story, but she’s never (at least, in what I’ve read) stretched out of her comfort zone. Look at Lydia Davis, an incredibly delightful and innovative short story writer. Though both have equal technical skill, Davis regularly experiments and tries to expand the possibilities of her form. Munro is consistently formulaic, even setting most of her stories in rural Ontario, her home (which is really enough of an argument against her, to me). She often draws comparisons to Eudora Welty (and I think Flannery O’Connor would also be a fair simile), but she’s the most Canadian Welty possible. And not even the cool hockey-and-Neil-Peart-and-that-crazy-mayor-in-Toronto Canadian. Just Tim-Horton’s-and-politeness-and-the-Raptors-after-Vince-Carter-left Canadian. Her unique approach to pacing is interesting, but hardly ground-breaking; it feels like an echo of Chekhov or Carver.

Who else, then? Haruki Marukami has been the favorite for longer than I’ve been alive. Though I’m aggressively ambivalent about his work, he represents someone who pushes literature forward. Thomas Pynchon would deserve it just for Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’m told he actually released a book this summer, which was surely better than the weird “Big Lebowski” ripoff that was Inherent Vice. There’s Philip Roth, for the misogynists. I have to plug the homeboy Adam Johnson, because Stanford could have gotten a clean sweep on Nobels this year. Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, two other great white male American authors with prefixed last names. Then there are always the obscure political ones, like Adonis and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, that hipsters can claim to have been rooting for.

What did the Swedes see in Munro? Well, there are some obvious reasons. She was an extremely conservative pick; her work is innocuous enough not to upset anyone. The Committee agitated the kind of people who would get agitated about these sorts of things last year, when they selected Mo Yan, a Chinese poet who has too often supported the authoritarian Chinese government. They might actually be exercising some anti-American biases (Toni Morrison in 1993 was our last winner). I (perhaps surprisingly) wouldn’t be too upset by this; writers like Wislawa Szymborska, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, Harold Pinter, Tomas Transtromer (whose name is so heartbreakingly close to Transformer), and J.M. Coetzee were all either too good or too important not to get picked, and America’s got to let other countries win things every now and again.

But I don’t think this explains Munro’s selection. I’ve got a theory, as promised by the title, and you only had to wade through 700 words to get to it.

Alice Munro has the same number of letters in her first and last name.

Boom.

Sounds a little far-fetched at first, I admit. But take a minute to consider how extensive the list of similar Nobel Prize in Literature laureates is:

Theodor Mommsen, Rudyard Kipling, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Sigrid Undset, Eugene O’Neill, Francois Mauriac, Halldor Laxness (best name), Salvatore Quasimodo (nope never mind, this is), Giorgos Seferis, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (when written in Hebrew), Nelly Sachs, Yasunari Kawabata, Eugenio Montale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Golding, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Mo Yan (which was the pen name of Guan Moye (damn, I did some research for this, eh?)).

That’s 20 different authors not including Munro, nearly a fifth of all winners. And but for their untimely deaths, the list would surely include Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka. Graham Greene also should have won, but was rejected in favor of two Swedish authors who happened to be judges on the committee (apparently this shit happens). For some perspective, only three U.S. presidents have had equally-lettered names. It’s a fairly unusual occurrence. The incredible correlation can’t be complete coincidence.

But Alec, you protest, this makes no sense. What possible motivation would they have for such an unusual criterion? That’s the puzzling part. The easy answer would be symmetry, a simple aesthetic desire. There’s something beautifully balanced about a name like this. And it matches well with “Nobel Prize.” If you pinned me down, though, I would have to say it comes from the first great Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, who brought his country to continental prominence in the Thirty Years’ War. Nobel, a proud Swede, sought to memorialize his country the best way he knew how.

This knowledge doesn’t really help us going forward. We’re still stuck with Munro as our reigning laureate, despite the fact that her prose elicits the kind of torpor that would drive a critic to spend an hour counting the letters in the names of Nobel Prize laureates. I suppose we just have to hope that Thomas Pynchon grows another letter by next year.

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