America’s Nobel: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature

In English Language by Daniel Kalder

Neustadt International Prize for Literature awards a silver feather.

Neustadt International Prize for Literature awards a silver eagle feather and $50,000 to the winner.

By Daniel Kalder

NORMAN, Oklahoma: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature may be the most prestigious literary award in the United States that you’ve never heard of. In certain circles it is sometimes referred to as “The American Nobel” not just because of its reputation for quality but also because the judges have on several occasions selected a winner who went on to bag the illustrious Swedish literary prize. This November, another writer will receive the accolade (plus the $50,000 and silver eagle feather that goes with it) and added to the list of potential, if not likely, Nobel-winners at a ceremony at the University of Oklahoma. Publishing Perspectives took the opportunity to talk about the prize’s 44 year history — and this year’s nominees — with Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today, the journal that administers the prize.

“The founders of the prize set a very high standard,” says Davis-Undiano, who serves as permanent chair of the Neustadt juries. “Basically, the finest writers in the world are always on the juries, and these writers nominate their peers for the prize. Given that the prize operates at an incredibly high level of renown and expectation, it is not surprising that many of the jurors and Neustadt winners are also Nobel Prize winners.”

Past Neustadt winners who went on to triumph in Stockholm include Gabriel García Márquez, who won the prize in 1972 ten years before he won the Nobel; Czesław Miłos, who won in 1978, two years before he won the Nobel; and Octavio Paz, who won in 1982, eight years before he won the Nobel. Indeed, Davis-Undiano believes the men and women behind the Nobel pay close attention to the Neustadt:

“I think the Swedish Academy has noticed that the Neustadt Prize process sifts through the world’s best and most important writers, and it helps them immeasurably to follow what we do as one strong indicator of what they should be looking at…one year they even invited the whole World Literature Today staff to the Nobel ceremony to acknowledge their indebtedness to our prize.”

Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano

Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano

Ultimately, however, Davis-Undiano thinks the confluence between the two prizes is logical:

“The Neustadt and Nobel prizes are choosing their winners from the same pool of the world’s elite authors, and so the overlap is inevitable… I think you’ll see that the overlap between the two prizes will continue into the future.”

The 2013 Nominees Include Several “Firsts”

This year’s Neustadt shortlist includes a mixture of names, one of which will likely be a lot more familiar to English speaking readers than the others. Far and away the most famous nominee is Japan’s Haruki Murakami, who is up for his third nomination. Also nominated are: César Aira, the Argentine writer/translator; Mia Couto, a Mozambican poet and author; Duong Thu Huong, a Vietnamese novelist; Edward P. Jones, an American author; Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-born poet now resident in US; Chang-rae Lee, a South Korean-born author resident in US; Edouard Maunick, a Mauritian poet; and Ghassan Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet, novelist and editor. There are also numerous firsts among the nominees: never before have writers from Mauritius, Mozambique, Palestine, or Ukraine been nominated for the prize, meanwhile Jones is first male African-American writer to make the shortlist.

However whereas critics of the Nobel frequently accuse the academy of allowing non-literary factors to sway their judgment, Davis-Undiano insists that neither tokenism nor politics have any role to play at the Neuustadt. The only criterion for choosing the winner, he says, is “literary merit:”

“The jurors understand this, and extraneous factors such as a writer’s need for money or the fact that a particular writer has been persecuted by his or her government can never be criteria bearing on the outcome.”

An Award Judged by World Class Peers

Funded by an endowment from the Neustadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma and Dallas, the charter of the award does indeed stipulate that it be conferred solely on the basis of literary merit. But is it so easy to enforce such ideals? For instance, Haruki Murakami is so famous that this could theoretically sway the judges either way: being more familiar with his work, they might vote for him- or they might reject him out of inverse snobbery. Davis-Undiano is not worried about this, stressing the elite nature of the hand-picked judges, all of whom do the nominating and are acclaimed writers in own right:

“The jurors would probably be more subject to the impact of writer’s reputation and world status if they were primarily critics or book reviewers. However, they are always writers who are discussing their peers when they deliberate, probably people they know and possibly collaborated with at some point. Thus, as “insiders” in the writing world they know so much more about who is writing and what people are writing than the reputations could convey by themselves. As such, the jurors are incredibly sophisticated judges, and they tend to see each writer within a very large context of what is happening in world literature.”

Davis-Undiano adds: “They may know that a particular writer is famous or his or her work is trendy at the moment, but since they know so much more about that writer than his or her fame, they are “immunized” in their decision making by their high level of knowledge about all of the writers being considered for the prize.  The fact that the juries are made up of professional and highly accomplished writers shapes a lot of what happens on these juries and is probably the secret of why the Neustadt prizes traditionally have gone to such appropriate and deserving writers.”

Comparing Cultures and Formats

The quality of the jurors is a factor Davis-Undiano returns to again and again. The prize organizers choose between seven and ten judges (“we simply choose the best writers in the world to be on the jury”) and “…we try to make sure that each jury has a balance of Eastern, Western, African, Middle-Eastern, etc.”  In addition, Davis-Undiano mentions an international circle of “roughly 800 advisers… [who] keep us informed about who has currently entered that pool of writers to watch. We simply tell the jurors that the writers they nominate must be living and must be willing to come to our campus to accept the award if they win.  The process is made considerably more complicated owing to the fact that the jurors may pick poets, playwrights, fiction, and non-fiction prose writers. Essentially, the contest for a winner could easily come down to a poet running against a playwright. The jurors have to be sophisticated in their approach to see how someone’s poetry stacks up against someone else’s play. They have a difficult job to do, but they are professional writers and are up to the task.”

Conscious of the Neustadt’s illustrious history, Davis-Undiano stresses the intense commitment of the judges:

“These are very important prizes that shape literary history, so we never want the jurors to decide too quickly or take any short cuts in their deliberations. The other constant in this process is the serious attention and commitment that the jurors give to the decisions they make. The level of buy-in from the jurors is always impressive and very moving to me. After each jury concludes its work, I come away from the process admiring what the juries have gone through to pick a winner and especially the wisdom of their selection.”

Neustadt Prize   World Literature Today

About the Author

Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR where he (more or less) picked up Russian. He has written two books about Russian life and culture and contributes features, reviews and travel pieces to publications around the world.