It's been over for awhile but it still bothers me. 2023 was the latest year in which Margaret Atwood did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
At least the Pulitzer Prize committee finally recognized Barbara Kingsolver. There's been no better US novelist, none more consistent and capacious in the breadth, depth and style of her work. But also this year the Nobel committee has once again ignored not only my now-perennial favorite--and the world's-- in once again passing over Margaret Atwood.
Atwood was widely believed to be the favorite back in 2017--so much so that the actual winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, publicly apologized for winning it instead of her. But there was always next year. And next year. And next year... And now Margaret Atwood is 84.
I don't claim to have read all the fine writers of the world, and I must defer judgment on a lot of prizes, like the Booker. But the Nobel has a specific, specified mission. In the words of founder Alfred Nobel, it is for the writer "who, in the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."
That person, year after year for the past decade (I've been touting her since at least 2011), has been Margaret Atwood. She is unique in the world for sustaining quality literary work over many years, while her work consistently engages the contemporary world. She is now a global presence, for the shared present and future dilemmas she writes about (and the increasingly relevance of The Handmaid's Tale), but also as a literary figure and an active voice. Her contributions are immeasurable.
Of course the Nobel committee in Sweden has ignored their founder's goals for years. They tend to award for a body of work rather than something from the previous year, which is defensible. But they also tend to choose writers who are perhaps known mostly within a single nation (usually a small one), if, frankly, at all. Their influence on the world is minimal, at least until they win and their work gets new editions.
Body of work? Margaret Atwood has published 18 novels, nine story collections, 18 volumes of poetry, 11 books of nonfiction, eight children's books and two graphic novels--and these are only works brought out by major publishers and presumably translated widely. She writes and speaks on ecology and economics as well as literature.
But there's no point in making the case. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows she is the perfect Nobel Laureate, and has been for years.
So why hasn't she been one? It can't be only because she sometimes writes speculative or science fiction--they gave the award to Doris Lessing many years ago. Atwood herself hasn't commented on it in interviews I've read or watched on Youtube, usually praising whoever just won. But I got the feeling that she doesn't expect to ever win it, because of some problem with the Nobel committee. Maybe there's animosity, personal or otherwise, from a member or members of the committee.. Maybe they feel she's gotten too many other awards. Who knows? (Actually, I think she does.)
The Nobel committee in any case has a well known track record of not getting around to honoring major literary figures in their lifetimes, and therefore never honoring them at all. So why should I care? I probably shouldn't. But to me it calls into question not only the Nobel committee's judgment but their integrity. I know all these prizes are political to some extent, and this is not the worst injustice in the world. But seeing some justice done is a rare but good feeling. She deserves this.
So I don't care who wins the Nobel anymore. Not until the name that's announced is Margaret Atwood.
P.S. Margaret Atwood's latest fiction is a story collection, Old Babes in the Woods. Barbara Kingsolver's Pulitzer-winning novel is Demon Copperhead. Both are fine gifts for discerning and appreciative readers.