Every year when Nobel time rolls around, people say America's Last Top Novelist Philip Roth should get it. Sometimes, those people are Philip Roth. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner quotes him today: "I wonder if I had called 'Portnoy's Complaint' 'The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,' if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy."
The main reason that Philip Roth has not won the Nobel so far seems to me obvious: there is a whole wide world of great literature out there, much of it not written by Americans, and much of it not lesser for not having been written by Americans. So, for example, when the gambling website Ladbrokes says that the top three choices by British gambling houses are as follows (I am quoting Garner but have punctuated and numbered his description for list-making purposes):
1. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o;
2. the melancholy Japanese surrealist writer Haruki Murakami; and
3. Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian investigative journalist.
These writers, whose bodies of work you may have varying familiarity with, may be in your personal opinion greater or lesser writers than Roth. I admit I myself do not know enough about Thiong'o or Alexievich to properly pronounce their names. And I wouldn't personally hand this to Murakami, not necessarily. But those are my subjective opinions, and the award of the Nobel will come from a mix of a bunch of other people's subjective opinions.
But the idea that Roth has a birthright to this prize—half because he is American and half because he has the kind of self-confidence so towering and immovable that he keeps saying it (and I have actually kind of come to half-admire that?)—is also (toweringly) silly.
There's an outside chance that I'm wrong and we'll wake up to Roth-a-palooza in the morning but more likely the prize will be given to someone not quite as well-known, maybe someone whom Americans have never heard of and will now be inspired to read. And obviously that would be a good thing for books, too.
[Image of Philip Roth receiving National Medal of the Arts in 2011 via Getty]