04/15/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 06/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada: Literate, but not Literary

One thing seems certain about the upcoming Nobel Prize for Literature: No Canadian author will win it. No Canadian author ever has, despite Canada arguably being the most literate country in the world, where virtually every citizen can read and write.

Wikimedia Commons/Andrei Romanenko/AP

Sometime this fall, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced - the most prestigious award of its kind in the world, carrying a monetary prize of roughly $1.3 million.

One thing seems certain -- no Canadian author will win it. No Canadian author ever has, despite Canada arguably being the most literate country in the world, where virtually every citizen can read and write.

This drought should not suggest a lack of literary talent among Canadian authors, and Lord knows, there's no shortage of topics in Canada's history to write about, and fictionalize -- especially considering a recent world survey that said Canadians had the most extensively educated population in the world.

That doesn't mean Canadians are the smartest, only that our education system is broad and inclusive. And it seems fair to wonder why, in the 111 years that the Nobel Prize for Literature has existed, that there's not been at least one Canadian author who won.

But no. Completely shut out.

A Guatemalan has won the prize, an Egyptian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and so on, but no Canadian. Talent recognizes no nationality, so it's odd that we are so shut out in literature.

It's not as if Canadians aren't world-class enough to win other Nobel Prizes (including the Nobel Peace Prize, which seems to alternate between what's fashionable politically and what genuinely advances "peace.").

Canadians have won in categories of peace, medicine, psychology, physics, chemistry and economics -- but not literature, unless one counts Saul Bellow, a Canadian because he was born in Quebec after his parents emigrated from Russia, and the family moved to the U.S. where he lived the until dying in 2005 at the age of 89. He won the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature as an "American" writer.

Going back, Mazo de la Roche (the Jalna series), Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), Stephen Leacock, W.O Mitchell, and the more contemporary Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Moore, Farley Mowat -- they have all been shut-out in Nobel Literature sweepstakes.

How come?

Australian writer Patrick White won the literature award in 1973; four Irishmen have won (William Butler Yeats, 1923, George Bernard Shaw, 1925, Samuel Beckett, 1969, Seamus Heaney, 1995). Eight have won for Britain: Rudyard Kipling (1905), John Galsworthy (1932), Bertrand Russell (1950), Winston Churchill (1953), Elias Canetti (1981) William Goldring (1983), V.S. Naipal (2001) and Doris Lessing (2007).

Of 330 Nobel Prizes won by Americans, the same number were for literature -- including Steinbeck (1962), Hemingway (1954), William Faulkner (1949), T.S. Eliot (1948) and Bellow (1976).

Non-English-language countries that have produced literature laureates include Algeria (Albert Camus, 1957); Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria one each; Chile two; China, Colombia and Czech Republic one each; Denmark three, Egypt and Finland one, France 12, Germany five.

Greece has two Nobel literary awards; Guatemala, Hungary and Iceland one each; India two; Italy 5; and Israel Japan, Lithuania and Mexico one each.

Like Canada, no one from Holland or New Zealand has ever been deemed worthy of a Nobel Literature prize, but Norway has won three and Nigeria one. A Peruvian, Portuguese and Romanian have each won one, as have five Poles and four Russians (Ivan Bunin 1933; Pasternak, 1958; Sholokhov, 1965; Solzhenitsyn, 1970).

Serbia has won one and South Africa two. Spain has won five and Sweden six. Switzerland has won four peace prizes, and two in literature.

So what is wrong with Canadian authors? We have won in every category except literature -- strange for a country that has what we think are excellent writers, novelists and biographers in both English and French.

But none impress the Nobel judges. Not like a Guatemalan, Serbian, Romanian or Mexican author honoured for their writing.

Can politics intrude in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature -- as they do in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize?

One can't fault the peace award going to the likes of Burma's Aung San Suu Ky (1991), the Dalai Lama (1989), South Africa's Albert Lutuli (1960) or George Marshall(1953). But one raises an eyebrow at the award going to the late Yasser Arafat, North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho in 1973 (who had the grace to reject it), or Jimmy Carter (2002), Al Gore (2007), and Barack Obama (2009).

Canada has won two more peace prizes than it has Nobel literature awards -- Mike Pearson for UN Emergency Force in 1957 and the Pugwash Peace Conference (!) in 1995.

Maybe one of these years the Nobel literature drought for Canada will end. If not Margaret Atwood (a leading contender for the prize) or one of the elite writers, maybe one of the bevy of Canadian thriller novelists who, interestingly, are among the best writers of their genre in the English-speaking world today: Scott Thornley, Peter Robinson, Giles Blunt, Gail Bowen, David Rotenberg and Joy Fielding to mention a few.

But they're unlikely to to be fancy-dancy enough for Nobel judges, and anyway, the Scandinavian whodunnit writers (Sweden, Norway, Iceland) are the best in the business today. They won't ever win, either.

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