The Magazine

Another Nobel Winner You've Never Heard Of

The prize committee needs to learn that there's more to literature than the novel.

Oct 28, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 07 • By JONATHAN LEAF
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE HONORING OF NOVELISTS above historians, philosophers, and poets was only gradual. Bertrand Russell won in 1950, Winston Churchill in 1953, and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. And the shift to novelists was perhaps justified when the novel was consistently attracting the best writing talent. But how many first-rate novelists are now working? Philip Roth and John Updike are still alive, and may deserve recognition. But among younger Americans, Don DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates are the most touted. Undeniably they have talent, but does either possess greatness? Britain has William Trevor and the comic novelist Tom Sharpe. But does it have many living novelists possessing anything approximating historical importance?

In contrast, consider some of the superlative historians, men of letters, economists, and synthetic writers of ideas at work. Think only of Jacques Barzun, Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, Simon Schama, James McPherson, and John Keegan. And, meantime, Robert Caro, Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, and Jean Edward Smith seem to have made biography into a major--perhaps the major--literary form of our age. What recent British novels were as worth reading as many of these authors' popular histories? How many Americans have composed a novel of the substance of some of these authors' treatises? How many create as full and memorable characters as these biographers have done?

THE NOBEL PRIZE COMMITTEE is wrong in thinking that it must avoid picking too many writers from the world's major countries. But that it looks to minor and unknown Hungarians to find talent in novel-writing may not be just a reflection of its desire to honor writers working in smaller nations.

In the preceding generation, there has been a marked improvement in both the quality and in the standards of the writing of history and biography. But either the novel is now worn-out soil, or we're in the midst of a sustained dry season. The Nobel committee might wish to take note.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York City.