Friday, October 9, 2009

Could Tony Kushner Win a Nobel Prize?

Yesterday I was reading about the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Herta Müller, and figuring out when to go see the Tony Kushner one-acts that will be opening soon at Berkeley Rep, when a thought occurred to me:

When people list American writers who might possibly win or deserve the Nobel Prize, why do they never mention Kushner?

I'm a Kushner fan, but I'm not just saying this out of blind admiration. I think you can objectively argue that he's the type of writer who'd appeal to the Nobel Committee, and should be included in the annual speculation.
  • He's YOUNG(ish)! Even though people think of the Nobel as an end-of-career prize for elderly geniuses, the committee has shown, in recent years, that they are willing to award writers from Kushner's generation. Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 and Herta Müller was born a year later. (Kushner was born in 1956.) It's not too soon to add him to the list of candidates, in other words.
  • He's GAY! Evidently, winning the Nobel has become, in part, a question of a writer's subject matter and political correctness. Many laureates write from the perspective of an outsider or one who has experienced oppression: African-Americans (Toni Morrison), feminists (Doris Lessing), citizens of totalitarian states (Solzhenitsyn, Müller), etc. Conspicuously un-awarded, thus far, are authors who write from a gay or lesbian perspective. (At least one gay man, André Gide, has won the prize--but that was in 1947, long before the gay rights movement existed!)
  • He's a LEFTIST! In addition to my feeling that the Nobel committee is going to want to pick a gay author sometime soon, they definitely prefer the politically liberal. I think that this will be specially important for American authors--they won't have a prayer of winning if they didn't oppose George W. Bush and the Iraq War, if they are uncritically Zionist, etc. Kushner passes these tests, of course.
  • He's INTERNATIONAL(ish)! Probably the biggest knock against Kushner is that he's American and our country has not fared well with the Literature Nobel recently, culminating in the chairman's comment, last year, that "American literature is too insular." But Kushner has, at least, shown a consistent interest in other countries and literatures: adapting Corneille and Brecht, writing a play about Afghanistan.
  • He tackles the BIG THEMES! Death, religion, American identity and the melting-pot, gay identity, AIDS and other crises... The subtitle to Angels in America says that it is a play on "national themes" but I should hope that readers in other countries would also find it worthwhile literature. And he has a knack for tackling these themes at the opportune moment: his drag name is Eara Lee Prescient, after all.
  • He can WRITE, TOO! Though the political themes of his work will endear him to the Nobel committee, his subject matter is not his only notable quality. His language is vivid, energetic, sometimes lyrical, eminently quotable. He has a wild imagination and a recognizable voice. He knows how to use the tools of theatricality and stagecraft.
  • He's FUNNY! Though humorous novelists don't get much respect with the Nobel, humorous playwrights are another story--cf. Shaw, Pirandello, Fo, even Beckett. Comedy in the service of a larger message.
  • He's INFLUENTIAL! Certainly among American playwrights, at least--I don't know about his influence abroad. Joyce Carol Oates often gets mentioned as a Nobel candidate, but I rarely read of younger novelists saying "I want to write like Joyce Carol Oates." (Well, okay, everyone would like to be as prolific as JCO, but when it comes to being influenced by her style, or her subject matter?) Whereas, all the time, young playwrights say "I want to write like Tony Kushner."
Of course, discussions of who'll win awards are always really just idle speculation, and particularly so with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This year, you can make a case for Kushner, but a lot could happen to change things. If Philip Roth ever does win the Prize like people are always suggesting, that'd diminish Kushner's chances, because it's unlikely to go to two American Jewish authors in close succession. Or if the committee gave it to another important gay writer.

All the same, it's pretty clear that Kushner is the only American playwright who has a chance of winning this thing. (Albee? Not after Pinter's recent win, I think. Kushner's a better bet because he's from a different generation and has a very different writing style than Albee or Pinter.) And you can make at least as good a case for Kushner as you can for several American novelists who always get mentioned as potential winners. So--even though America seems to be in a prolonged slump with the Nobel Prize for Literature committee--let's add him to the list of people who just might be the one to break the losing streak!


Bob said...

Wow. You make an excellent case. One thing working against Kushner might be that "Angels in America" overshadows everything else he's done. On the other hand, you could justifiably argue that "Angels" is his masterwork, and his other writing lends support to the case that he's created a potent body of work that proves he's not a one-hit wonder. Certainly he's the most important American playwright of his generation. I think you're on to something here!

Marissa said...

Yeah, "Angels" definitely overshadows all of Kushner's other work, but I don't know if that's a problem for the Nobel committee--the prize has often gone to authors who've written one standout masterpiece plus a lot of good-but-not-earth-shattering stuff. E.g. we all know that if Gabriel García Márquez had never written "100 Years of Solitude" he'd never have won the Nobel. To require every Nobel laureate to have written MULTIPLE masterpieces might be too high of a standard, even for them!

Shall we bet some money on Kushner at this time next year? :-)