When he retired in 2012, it was widely assumed that Philip Roth had given up his chance of winning the Nobel Prize. Although the Swedish Academy doesn’t require authors to be active—they just have to be not dead—it is generally believed that the academy privileges working authors over retired ones.
Roth is arguably America’s most deserving Nobel laureate. He’s probably first among equals, at least as far as Nobel Prize speculation is concerned, beside Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. (I’d argue that William Gass belongs in that company as well, but no matter.) But America’s relatively deep bench has also probably hurt it in the past–it’s hard to argue why DeLillo is more deserving than Roth, or vice versa. On Wednesday, I wrote that DeLillo was the leading American contender—and perhaps the leading contender for the Nobel itself—but I also assumed that the conventional wisdom was correct and that the academy would not award a retired author.
I’ve spoken to a couple of Swedish people today who seem to be confident that an American will win the prize on Thursday morning. But one told me a rumor that’s too good not to broadcast: that the academy received a proposal to honor DeLillo and Roth at the same time, a kind of catch-all Nobel for Great American Novelists. Furthermore, the two people who received the proposal seemed receptive to the idea. The person who relayed the rumor did not seem particularly confident—he called it a “joke”—but as a rumor, it is very good stuff, especially in Nobel-starved America.
Giving the prize to two writers is not unprecedented (they would each get half of the prize’s sweet $1.4 million bounty). It’s happened three times: In 1904, when Frédéric Mistral and José Echegaray y Eizaguirre won; in 1966, when Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Miguel Angel Asturias won; and, most recently, in 1974, when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shared the prize.
So it’s plausible that Roth and DeLillo could share the Nobel, even if it’s unlikely. But it’s an outcome we all should be rooting for, especially because it would presumably make Roth—who reportedly waits for the call every year at his agent’s office—very mad.