The Nobel Prize for Literature is announced on Thursday : NPR

Past winners include authors Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. American poet Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature.


In a few hours, a new name will join the pantheon of Nobel Prize winners in literature. Now past winners have included authors Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. NPR’s Neda Ulaby joins us as we await updates from Sweden. So, Neda, are we – what? – perhaps expecting a big win for James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks this year? What do you think?

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: (Laughs) I don’t think so, unless they have side gigs which I don’t know about because – I don’t know – maybe avant-garde…

MARTINEZ: (Laughs).

ULABY: … French poets or journalists on a crusade in Belarus. Seriously, though, A, over the last 20 years Nobel literature has tended to go to a certain kind of writer who’s pretty obscure outside of academic circles. They are often North Americans or Europeans, whites, extremely distinguished, but not exactly rock stars, except in universities or in their country of origin. For example, recent literature laureates are Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian experimental playwright Peter Handke.

MARTINEZ: Well, you said rock star. So, I mean, let’s not forget a real rock star – Bob Dylan. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago.

ULABY: That’s true. And that felt a bit like an overcorrection on the part of the…

MARTINEZ: (Laughs).

ULABY: … The Nobel Prize committee, like, maybe they were really trying to appeal to a wider audience, except in some ways because, you know, there were generational issues and similar aesthetic sensibilities . And I must add that Bob Dylan was one of the two Americans who very recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The last, last year – the wonderful poetess Louise Gluck.

MARTINEZ: Okay. Now, you said certain geographies tend to be overrepresented with Nobel literature. How much of a problem is that really?

ULABY: Let me put it this way, A – more Austrians have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past 20 years than anyone on the entire African continent…


ULABY: … Or from the Arab world or from Central America.


ULABY: No black person has won a Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993. And no one from any East Asian country except China or Japan has ever won. And it is a prize destined to be the most prestigious in world literature.

MARTINEZ: And it definitely looks like an overrepresentation – those numbers you just threw out. So, has this always been the case?

ULABY: You know, actually not. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to leading writers from Colombia – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and from Mexico, from Egypt – Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia. It really wasn’t as Eurocentric as it has been for the past 20 years.

MARTINEZ: So, especially with the cultural reassessments and reckonings that we’ve seen happening all over the world, do you have any sense that maybe there will be any changes?

ULABY: Maybe. The Nobel Literature committee recently tried to branch out by adding two women in their 50s, following a 2017 sex abuse scandal. And that means the judges are now six Swedish writers whose combined age is over 400 years. They therefore seem to have realized that the relevance of the prize has diminished in the popular imagination, and the president has promised to start bringing in experts next year who will help the committee consider literature beyond Europe. and North America. Ideally, this is supposed to help make Nobel Prizes more focused on global human achievement, even in countries that aren’t resource-rich beyond imagination.

MARTINEZ: Yes. Alright, so who are some of this year’s literary favorites?

ULABY: Well, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o comes back every year as a strong possibility. He’s what we call an eternal Nobel bridesmaid. Other names that come up often are Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, Syrian poet Adonis and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. There is a much talked about French writer named Annie Ernaux, even if she won it would make her the third French writer since 2008 to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

MARTINEZ: This is Neda Ulaby from NPR, which covers arts and culture. Thank you very much.

ULABY: Thank you, A.


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