No American has won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 23 years, not since Toni Morrison. And it’s easy to presume that the game is rigged against the United States: In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, went out of his way to dis American literature as a whole when he shot down rumors that two Americans, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth, were shortlisted for the prize. “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world, not the United States,” he said. “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
The backlash to Engdahl’s comments was severe. New Yorker editor David Remnick, for instance, responded by reminding the Academy of all the times it had screwed up: “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lecture.” Adam Kirsch accused the academy of prizing anti-Americanism in its laureates. But the criticism changed nothing: Seven Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded since then, and none of them went to Americans. Many in the U.S.—like The Daily Beast’s Malcolm Jones, who on Tuesday wrote a thoughtful version of what’s become a seemingly evergreen take—think that the Swedish Academy has blackballed American writers.
But a lot has changed since 2008. In the age of Barack Obama, anti-Americanism is less of a cultural force than it used to be, potential president/gilded human outhouse Donald Trump notwithstanding. American literature itself is—slowly—becoming more self-critical, more hard-edged, and thus less insular and self-satisfied. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad are all still outliers in America’s mostly white publishing culture, but they also seem like signs of things to come. And the alleged exemplars of American hermeticism are either dead (John Updike), retired (Roth), or have ruined their careers by writing dumb shit on Twitter (Oates). (For that matter, Roth promoted many great Eastern European writers as the editor of the great Writers From the Other Europe series. But Engdahl’s comments aren’t interesting because they’re right; they’re interesting because they’re a window into how the Swedish Academy thinks.)
There’s a chance that 2016 might be different—that an American could bring home the Nobel Prize in Literature, a silver lining in what has otherwise been a tire fire of a year. Every October a few writers surge in the betting, and sometimes one of those authors wins. As The Guardian reported on Tuesday, “Analysis last week from Ladbrokes has shown that over the last 10 years the favorite when betting was suspended has taken the prize four times, while 91 percent of the time the winner has had odds of 10/1 or less when betting was suspended.” I’ve written before that Ladbrokes betting should be taken with a grain of salt—a point that became even clearer when a number of writers I heralded in an often tongue-in-cheek Nobel prediction post skyrocketed in the odds. (I’m sorry if you bet on Charles Portis, but he is not going to win. Please don’t beat me up.)
This year a few writers have made significant jumps, according to Ladbrokes: the Kenyan novelist and perennial Nobel contender Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who leap-frogged Haruki Murakami and now leads the field; the Spanish writer Javier Marias and the Hungarian novelist and screenwriter Laszlo Krasznahorkai; and perhaps the American with the best shot at the prize, Don DeLillo.
Thomas Pynchon has written masterpieces. So has Philip Roth. Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian and The Road. If anything, the American field has always been penalized for its deep bench, especially when it comes to the old white guys that the Swedish Academy loves so much. It has also been penalized for its variety—there is no one strain of American literature, which means that the Academy’s interpretation of that literature can more accurately be read as a projection of its vision of America. As Kirsch argued back in 2008, that vision is often “raw and backward.”
When Engdahl said that American publishing was insular and not as into what was happening in Romanian coffee houses as it should be, he wasn’t really talking about literature. He was viewing American culture through the prism of George W. Bush’s presidency, which was how all American things were viewed by Europeans after 2003. Engdahl was saying that America itself was insular. The Swedish Academy wanted an American to grab the microphone like Harold Pinter did in 2005 and declare that “the crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless.” Philip Roth wasn’t going to do that. And Updike would’ve shown up to the ceremony in his tennis whites.
If you’re looking for a fiery statement, Don DeLillo is not your guy. At last year’s National Book Awards, shortly after Trump announced “the Muslim ban,” DeLillo gave a moving, beautiful speech—about looking at the books lining his walls as he wrote at his typewriter. (He requested that he not be filmed, but you can listen to a recording here.) Tom LeClair wrote earlier this year that, when asked by a journalist about his political orientation, DeLillo responded, “Well, in the Bronx where I grew up we’d have put it this way: Because it’s none of your fucking business.”
But of all the leading American Nobel candidates, DeLillo is a writer of the moment. In an essay published three months after the September 11 attacks, Don DeLillo wrote that the problem the American writer faced in this brave new world was deceptively simple: “The narrative ends in the rubble.” If one sentence sums up post-9/11 American life, that is certainly a contender.
After 9/11, many declared the postmodern “systems novel,” as pioneered by Pynchon and William Gaddis and further perfected by DeLillo, to be dead. Writing in a Slate roundtable about DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man, Ruth Franklin wrote, “In my reading, 9/11—an event that by its very nature could not have been predicted, even by a superstitious novelist who happened to understand America better than anyone else—dealt a fatal blow to DeLillo’s vision of contemporary life. Even he could not make a case for 9/11 as the confluence of vast global currents, as some inevitable culmination of the obsessions and the degradations of American society.”
DeLillo’s work after 9/11 has been noticeably checkered—aside from Cosmopolis, which has aged better than anyone thought it would when it was published in 2003, his work has been smaller and less energetic than it was at his peak, which ran from the publication of The Names in 1982 to his stab at the Great American Novel, 1997’s Underworld. During that period, DeLillo was the poet laureate of post-Nixonian American dread (alongside Oliver Stone, with whom he has many thematic, if few stylistic, similarities). He published five undeniable masterworks: Besides The Names and Underworld, there was his paean to American anxiety, White Noise; his Kennedy assassination fever dream Libra; and Mao II, which presciently explored “the curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.”
But in the decade since Falling Man’s publication, DeLillo’s vision of American life has regained some of its prescience and acuity. This has been a year of magic and dread, to use DeLillo’s memorable phrase. It is has been a year in which his obsession with paranoia, death, and the threads that connect us together has a special significance. In 2016, a sentence like Mao II’s “The future belongs to the crowds” feels particularly ominous. Even DeLillo’s jokes—“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” a character in White Noise says in explaining why people visit the most photographed barn in the world—have gained new meaning in the iPhone era. DeLillo has never written about Donald Trump, but his entire body of work is suffused with the paranoia and the sense of fraying identity that animate many of Trump’s supporters—albeit with a postmodern tinge that is hardly present at a Trump rally.
Most importantly, though, DeLillo’s attention to systems has regained its significance. Though less politically engaged than his earlier work, Zero K is a perfect systems novel for 2016—it follows two characters who aim to live forever (a la Gawker murderer and Trump lover Peter Thiel) by submitting to cryogenic freezing. The systems novel is not limited to politics, especially when so much power—to both wield political force and conquer people’s imaginations—is concentrated in a few square miles in California.
Swedish journalist Jens Liljestrand of the newspaper Expressen also thinks that this might be DeLillo’s year. “The Academy is very much aware of the fact that their disregard for American literature is starting to look silly, and might even make the ‘brand’ of the Nobel Prize suffer internationally,” he wrote in an email. “Zero K was well-received here by leading critics and his work is generally adored. This year, what better time to reward an American that is sharply critical to Trump?”
Liljestrand sees DeLillo’s work, obsessed as it is by American identity and human connection, as a refutation of Trumpism. “I think one might argue that DeLillo’s work, in particular Underworld, displays a sense of shared humanity, an intertwined society, that is in its essence an Anti-Trump philosophy,” he wrote.
And as Tom LeClair—who wrote the first book about DeLillo, In the Loop—told me, “There’s no time like the present to award prescience: for DeLillo’s long awareness of the paranoid style in American politics. If only DeLillo could make the future happen, as well as predict it, and make our rich presidential conspiracy theorist disappear as DeLillo’s billionaire does in Cosmopolis.”
DeLillo would be a fitting writer to honor in the Year of Trump. Fifteen years ago, a large swath of the literary community had embraced the idea that DeLillo—and his mode of metaphysical, politically resonant fiction—belonged to the past. It would be a sweet irony, if, on the eve of the scariest presidential election in history, they were proven wrong.