One-Minute Book Reviews

October 8, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Isn’t John Updike on the Odds-Makers Lists of Favorites for the Nobel?

A mystifying aspect of the lists of bookies’ favorites for the Nobel Prize in literature: Why isn’t John Updike’s name on any that I’ve seen?

Yes, the requirements for the prize specify that it should go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency” or promotes the good of humanity. And that standard might not favor Updike’s novels about the lascivious Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But that test also wouldn’t favor a lot of the work of Philip Roth and Don De Lillo, whose names appear often on lists of bookies’ favorites. And Updike is much more elegant writer than Joyce Carol Oates, though she has given so much support to other writers – especially female writers – that she may come closer to meeting the test of idealism.

Updike’s novels vary tremendously in quality. But he is the best all-around writer in America – not just one of our leading novelists but a great story story writer, a good poet and an elegant critic. Do bettors discount him because his short stories are perhaps his best work and he wrote many of them decades ago? Or because they don’t count his criticism and poetry? What role does the unofficial geographic distribution requirement — and that the U.S. has more novelists than most countries – play in all of this? If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. It’s that short story bias again, I guess. 🙂 Maybe the judges don’t count his literary criticism as “literature” though they probably should count his poetry.

    As far as nations winning the most Nobel prizes, France leads with 13 so the French writers had probably better count on sitting out a few more years. Then there’s the U.S. with 11 and Britain with 10, including Doris Lessing.

    I definitely see what you mean about Updike and Greenland!

    Comment by Val Kovalin — October 9, 2008 @ 12:19 am | Reply

  2. That the judges may not count Updike’s criticism points to another problem with the Nobel Prize for literature: It is so biased in favor of writers of fiction. Just offhand, I can’t think of a writer known primarily for nonfiction who has won the prize since Churchill got it in 1953 for his speeches and his historical and biographical works, especially his History of the English-Speaking Peoples

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 9, 2008 @ 10:51 am | Reply

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