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While past Nobel laureates like Doris Lessing certainly approve of and are connected with the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre in at least a peripheral way, no unabashed genre writer has ever won the prize.
Our question for this week’s fearless panelists:
Here’s what they said…
I’m a firm believer that it’s a greater honor to be nominated than to win, because there are usually better reasons to quibble about the winner than the nominees. Therefore, my first thoughts on nominees, in no special order: Jane Yolen, Ursula LeGuin, Samuel R. Delany, John Crowley, and Gene Wolfe. If she was still alive, I would include Diana Wynne Jones.
As I started thinking about this question, my first reaction was rather ambivalent: the idea of a writer of fantastika winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was not far-fetched, but seemed at once improbable and, more importantly, unnecessary. What would it do for the allied genres if a “real” writer of SF or fantasy or horror took the honor (and doesn’t 1987 Worldcon GoH Doris Lessing count for something)? Would there be a sudden renewal of interest in fantastic literature? What does the Prize do for the field of literature anyway?. The Prize is an odd creation, funded rather ambiguously by the estate of the man who patented dynamite and who was prematurely excoriated as a “merchant of death” when his brother’s death was confused with him dying. The Prize was to be awarded “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” an instruction that has its own peculiar history of interpretation. It is a strange honor, one created by privilege and granted by a tiny elite, to acknowledge something that is, as the award’s history itself demonstrates, rather subjective, leading one to wonder just what is being lauded in its giving.
For these reasons, I think that the question is interesting not as one of speculation, but as one of rumination about what strengths we find in the works of genre authors that exemplify fantastika’s broader artistic and contemplative values. Looking for such nominees is like looking for our Jose Saramago or our Nadine Gordimer, but it’s also like looking for our Sully Prudhomme or Roger Martin du Gard; what was resonant fifty years ago may not be today. As Gene Wolfe once noted about the Nobel, winning it is no guarantee of enduring importance or admiration, especially as its standards have shifted over time. A given writer’s legacy is rarely influenced by winning the Award, nor is it predictive of enduring eminence. But the question of which authors in fantastika come to mind as contenders can start a conversation about what we think fantastic literature has to offer authors as well as readers.
Wolfe would, perhaps not surprisingly, be my first nominee. As our gracious host noted himself on Twitter a few weeks ago: “It’s my contention that Gene Wolfe is one of the few core genre writers who could plausibly get a Nobel Prize in Literature.” A quick search on Goggle turned up many conversations about this possibility, touting Wolfe’s gifts as world-class and deeply literary. He fits many of the preconceptions we have about what makes an author worthy of the Prize: his work is written with precision and profundity, his novels are often capacious and labyrinthine, with subtexts, depths of interpretation, and philosophical intricacies. They have aesthetic flourishes and meticulous structures, and they often have a lot to say about human nature. Wolfe reflects, for a number of readers, all of the qualities that we think a Nobel Laureate should possess.
And yet, I wonder if he is the best name to put forth. Wolfe is one of my favorite writers, and hugely influential, but I can’t help but think that he is too easy a choice to advocate. In some ways, Wolfe’s work fulfills certain expectations of what “literature” should be; dense, sometimes overly verbose, stratospherically intellectual, headily erudite. This makes him a fine candidate, but I think there are other authors who, for somewhat different reasons, are as good if not better nominees.
Ursula K. Le Guin comes to mind immediately. Her work often has those literary qualities I have described for Wolfe, but she has also demonstrated a wider range, writing YA fiction, criticism, and even a re-interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. She has addressed political topics, social issues, and the very idea of story itself in her work. Her range is stunning, and her ability to create works that can be simply deft or exactingly sophisticated demonstrates a gift for adaptation that arises precisely from her grasp and utilization of the fantastic and the mythic as her inspiration. Her literary heights might not dizzy us as often as Wolfe’s do, but she can ground us or make us soar in our minds with a shift in phrase or notion. In her work we see much of the potential of fantastika to serve the author’s talents and skill.
Samuel R. Delany would be another candidate of equal value. Delany too creates works with amazing depths and ornamentations, provokes emotion and reflection with power and sophistication. But, moreso than Wolfe or Le Guin he plays with the form of narrative, with the use of words, with the meanings that are possible in the structure and linguistic relationships within a story. His experimentations are legendary (if lamented by some), and his knowledge of literature, of the building blocks of signification, make his stories into a different sort of wonderland that can dishevel and delight, can ask hard questions and provide sobering answers. Delany fearlessly writes about himself as well, and while occasionally indulgent (as almost all autobiography is), his purpose is to reflect on how the words and experiences and ideas that influence his thoughts and actions, particularly from SF, can themselves be rendered on the page to provoke the reader and explicate matters that may not be easily grasped straightforwardly. He is one of our most powerful literary critics, and frequently takes great chances with his work (as those who have read or heard him read excerpts from his new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders can attest). Fantastika is both toolbox and contemplative garden for him, and he has created a literary legacy that few can match.
My last nominee, which should also be unsurprising, is Joanna Russ. I have written about her influence on me personally, but as the outpouring of tributes for her work demonstrate, her influence was mighty and pervasive. She precipitated a shift in thinking about some of the essential conceits of SF, of the production of literature, and of the ongoing struggle to crack open the potential of fantastika to discover new ideas, to look at our assumptions from different angles, and to construct stories that did not assuage the reader, but that forced them to reflect on what they knew. As she has passed away she is technically ineligible for the Prize, but as a writer I reserve the right to change the rules a bit; if there is an author of the fantastic who fulfills the idea of “ideal direction,” it is Russ.
One closing thought: these are not just nominees as “SF authors” but as authors who write fantastika that are more than worthy of such a Prize, odd as it is. Their work is not just technically proficient, not merely “literary;” it touches lives, reverberates through the field of fantastika and beyond, asks questions that demand a response in the reader, tells us that there is more to the world than what we see, than what others tell us is there. It does what I feel that literature should do: shake us, enrapture us, make our days strange and wonderful, tear at cherished notions and force us to defend them, perhaps question them, perhaps discover something new and stronger within them. I wish there was a prize for that.
Nobel Prize for Ray Bradbury.
By no means does Ray Bradbury represent the main tradition of science fiction or fantasy, if only because he is inimitable. Instead, his stories, at their best, represent the finest literature of their time. Today it is only Fahrenheit 451 that schoolchildren read — which is a shame, since it is not even close to being his best work. It is for Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, and I Sing the Body Electric that he has earned a place in world literature worthy of permanent recognition.
If there is a runner-up, then it must be Harlan Ellison. Like Bradbury, his greatest work has been in the short story form; in addition, his personal essays and generous collaborations add luster to the body of his work. “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man” and “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream” pulled him to the forefront of science fiction, but the more of his work you read, the more richly you are rewarded.
My candidates (in alphabetical order):
- John Crowley
- Samuel Delany
- M. John Harrison
- Gene Wolfe
Which SF/F Authors should be considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Offhand, I can think of three different ways to answer this question, all based on the assumption that we’re talking about living writers with substantial long-term careers, which is allegedly what the Nobel Prize is for.
Answer #1: None of them. I’m tempted to say that our very best SF/F writers deserve better than to have their names appended to a list that is in substantial part made up of writers such as Sully Prudhomme, Grazia Deledda, and Pearl Buck. If you only recognize one of those names, that’s sort of my point. Like most awards, the Nobel has a spotty record of identifying awardees whose works are still read, or readable, more than a decade after the prize is awarded, and it might be just as well for us to stop obsessing over these very traditional forms of mainstream recognition. Whether we like it or not, SF/F is perceived as genre literature, and the only genre which has been occasionally recognized by the Nobel committees is historical fiction. That should tell us something right there. SF, almost by definition, is forward-looking, and the Nobel, almost by definition, is backward-looking.
Answer #2: It’s already happened. If one makes only a slight change in the question–from asking about SF/F writers to asking about writers who have written SF/F in one form or another, then the Nobel history doesn’t look quite so bleak, from Rudyard Kipling to Hermann Hesse and William Golding to, most prominently and recently Doris Lessing, who has offered some very public and spirited defenses of SF as a legitimate mode of writing. Even Philip Roth, who is perennially listed as a candidate the last several years, has at least one fantasy (The Breast) and one alternate-history novel (The Plot Against America) in his bibliography. Of course I’m being a bit coy about this, and it’s quite likely that Lessing, for example, received the prize in spite of her SF rather than because of it.
Answer #3: OK, I’ll play the game. Since the Nobel committees don’t like to recognize genre literature as anything other than a temporary illness which serious writers just ought to get over, we probably ought to look at writers whose careers are seen as somewhat broader than genre, even though genre may make up the bulk of their work. In this sense, the most likely living candidate, and certainly one of the most deserving, is Ursula K. Le Guin. If the committee were ever to look inside the genre, to see what richness and complexity can be accomplished within that framework, then I’d add Gene Wolfe to the list. Both are richly deserving, I think, though both suffer from the handicap of being Americans and having a substantial degree of popularity.
There is a long list of writers in comparatively early stages of their careers who might become reasonable candidates in a couple of decades
This was a tough question, largely because I feel that the award itself is so important. Whether or not it’s true of the prize for literature, I associate it with works that aren’t only beautiful or entertaining but are also ethical somehow. So, I’ll stick with SFF literature that comments on the human condition. (Again, whether I’ve interpreted the question correctly is a whole other thing.) Anyway, here are my thoughts. Daniel Keyes is my first choice. Flowers for Algernon is an amazing, powerful work. Not only does Keyes present interesting scientific concepts, but he also creates heartbreaking characters. Charlie is so real and so tragic. In many ways, he’s all of us. We’re all destined to live those stellar moments of clarity and beauty and then pass into nothing through no fault of our own. Next, I’ll name Margaret Atwood. A controversial one, I know, but The Handmaid’s Tale has stuck with me every bit as much as the others I’ll name. Regardless of whether Atwood was willing to admit its status as a SFF work or not, it’s a great book and an important one. Whenever I hear someone downplay the contributions of female writers to the genre, Atwood is one of those names who comes to mind as a defense. I’d also throw down with Ray Bradbury, but then someone else is bound to toss his name into the hat. And well, that needs no explanation, really. All I have to say is Fahrenheit 451, and we’re done.
Enough with the older stuff. What about newer works? In a way, I’ll admit my choices aren’t fair because I’m not as up to date these days as I’d like. However, a few things have snuck past my mountain of research. I was fascinated with the concepts and the world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi poses some fantastic questions about where we’re headed with genetic engineering. Granted, it’s the same question Mary Shelley posed with her novel Frankenstein, but it’s a question we human beings should never forget to ask. Lastly, I’m going to go with Libba Bray. There are some amazing things going on in young adult fiction, and in particular, young adult SFF. Bray is definitely a part of that force. Going Bovine was a stunning surrealist piece and Beauty Queens is far more weighty than its title and tongue-in-cheek introduction implies.