Did Obama Get the Wrong Nobel?
The great American writer John Updike never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He should have.
When Updike came to Idaho a few years back, I spent a marvelous day with him and asked if, considering his enormous body of work, it was a disappointment never to have won the biggest prize in literature.
After all, Faulkner won. So did Hemingway and Steinbeck. He got that marvelous twinkle in his eye and just smiled and said something about not writing for awards. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the snub was a disappointment, but one he had become resigned to.
Personal opinion – Updike should have won the Nobel, but did not because of the Nobel Committee’s alleged (more recent) bias against American writers.
Some of the rap has been that Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, just to name a few, are too commercial and not sufficiently literary by Nobel standards. Bunk. Decisions about awarding Nobel Prizes are political whether we’re talking peace, prose or poetry.
I’ll leave the dissection of the Obama Peace Prize to all those who have already had their say, but I did take note of two particular reactions. Senator John McCain, as the LA Times noted, has once again proven” that he is still out of touch with his party.” McCain told CNN, “I think all of us were surprised at the decision. But I think Americans are always pleased when their president is recognized by something on this order.” The old McCain.
A second reaction – Louisa Thomas – at Newsweek suggests the president should have won the literature prize on the strength of his two excellent books.
Who knows, Obama may get a second chance for a Nobel. Winston Churchill won the literature prize in part, no doubt, because he was a great political leader, but also because he was one hell of a good writer and had accumulated a substantial body of great work.
I was thinking this morning of the intensity of the 2008 political campaign just a year ago. The daily drama and intensity of that unforgettable campaign has faded, but amidst all Palin, Bill Ayres, fist bumps and Joe the Plumber, not to mention the financial meltdown, who would have thought we’d be talking about the Nobel Peace Prize and an American president 12 months later?
Like him or not, Barack Obama has been a transforming figure on the world stage. His challenge may ultimately be to live up to all the world’s out sized expectations.
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As for the great Updike, just because it is so good, here is one of his last short poems. Appropriate, I think.
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! so young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.