Stockholm, Are You Listening?

Do you find it as obvious as I do that Don DeLillo richly deserves to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature? And right away, as in this year?

The inner workings of the Swedish Academy are opaque, but the one thing everybody knows is that their record of choices for the literature prize is spotty at best and in some cases purblind and scandalous (see: Peter Handke). Their sins of commission—when is the last time anyone said or wrote anything about the laureates Rudolf Eucken, Carl Spitteler, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Pearl S. Buck, Nelly Sachs, or Dario Fo?—are exceeded only by their sins of omission. Writers the Academy have passed over include Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henrik Ibsen, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and, most recently and conspicuously, Philip Roth.

Nevertheless the Nobel continues to exceed the Booker, the Pulitzer, and all other literary awards in its prestige, global impact, and ability to tip the scales toward immortality. As the snubbing of Roth year after year became something of a rueful running joke in the press and even on the streets of New York, as described in Lisa Halliday’s roman à clef Asymmetry, I kept muttering to myself, “But what about Don DeLillo? Isn’t that a greater injustice?” Because even while Roth was alive I regarded DeLillo as the greatest living American writer, and now the matter is not remotely debatable. Roth, of course, was a highly visible public figure and a shrewd manager of his own career and reputation, while DeLillo, though by no means the Pynchonian recluse he was once mistaken for, shuns the spotlight and has no interest in the wages of fame. To the extent the matter of a DeLillo Nobel is discussed, the consensus seems to be that yeah, he probably should get it, but he won’t because, well . . . he’s too cerebral, he stays under the radar, add your own excuse or rationalization here. I used to be disappointed and depressed by this tepid response to him and his work. Lately I’ve been working my way up to infuriated. It is, in its lazy way, not just an insult to DeLillo—it also constitutes a dismissal of everything American literature has achieved and had to tell us about ourselves and the world in the postwar years.

Don DeLillo. Photo: © Joyce Ravid
Don DeLillo. Photo: © Joyce Ravid

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. Since the publication of his ebullient and film-drenched first novel, Americana, in 1971—imagine if Mad Men had actually realized its literary pretensions instead of merely displaying them—he has produced sixteen novels and one story collection, not one of them without great value and interest and several of them regarded as among the supreme monuments in postwar American fiction. A recurrent criticism of American literature is that our writers are somehow stunted in the overall development and unfolding of their careers by the thinness of our cultural soil, as opposed to the more nurtured and stately European model. DeLillo’s career, so fecund and dazzling no matter what part of it you examine, so marked by growth from early promise to jaw-dropping midlife mastery to late-stage and highly personal autumnal richness, puts paid to that critique. I would go so far as to argue that no other American novelist in our literary history can match him for consistency matched with productivity. Even Roth, who, despite his astonishing late-career spurt, produced a fair number of duds.

Given the space and time I could fill an entire issue of this publication with extended praise songs of DeLillo and his novels. I have read his work since the early ’70s with the utmost attention and admiration, and—you should know—I edited one of his supreme masterpieces, Libra, an exalting experience, an editor’s dream. For now, though, let’s focus on the major justifications for a DeLillo Nobel. The case rests, I believe, on four propositions.

The first is that no American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience. DeLillo has always denied that he ever intended his novels to constitute some sort of Dos Passos–esque and encyclopedic American epic; he is the least programmatic and most intuitive and sentence-driven major writer of our time. Nevertheless the end result has been encyclopedic and epic. Those intuitions and sentences have led him deeper into key and previously uncharted regions of our psyche than any other contemporary novelist has gone, and into subject matter that, taken together, has yielded a panorama of American experience. A partial list of his subjects and preoccupations includes cinema and the power of the image over that of the word; the Cold War and nuclear anxiety; our obsession with sports; technology and its often sinister ubiquity (see: “The Airborne Toxic Event”); the shattering effect of the Kennedy assassination and its never-answered questions; the eerily similar effects of the 9/11 attacks; the derangements of celebrity and fame; the comic and disturbing undercurrents of “ordinary” middle-class life; the fevers of finance capital; the delusional plutocratic quest for a technological fix for the problem of mortality; and, proleptically and persistently, the inextricable centrality of terrorism to the way Americans regard themselves and the wider world. As he famously put it in Mao II, it is now gunmen and bombmakers, not novelists, who shape our narratives and “make raids on human consciousness.” This is as striking and inarguable an insight as any novelist of our time has offered us.

The second argument for a DeLillo Nobel rests on the astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). These novels are permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness. Their tropes and sentences and cadences have radiated out into wider culture in a dozen different ways and in a fashion that haute lit rarely does. Pafko at the Wall. Hitler Studies. The Men in Mylex. Seven seconds that broke the back of the American century. All plots tend to move deathward. Men in small rooms. The future belongs to crowds. Active shooter. (Oops, my mistake. That just sounds like a DeLillo coinage, as so much of our contemporary jargon now does.) I have been rereading White Noise for the first time since its publication, and it is so brilliant—so controlled and terrifying and original and death-haunted and just so damned funny—that I was affirmed anew in my conviction that it is the key post-’60s novel, even more so than Gravity’s Rainbow. American thought and speech has never been rendered in such telling registers of irony and self-reflexiveness—the inner monologue of our time. Every sentence bears the unique stamp of its writer. It represents better than any other literary text just how apocalyptic dread has become the inescapable ground note of everyday life.

The third argument rests on the real, if hard to measure, matter of influence. According to his literary agent, DeLillo’s work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. I would venture to say that the devoted DeLillo reader of completist tendencies in Bucharest, Montevideo, Riyadh, or Seoul would understand as much about the US’s dislocations and contradictions and lunacies as the average Ph.D. in American studies. And these insights have been delivered courtesy of a major artist completely in the American grain, an invaluable mixed message to be sending forth. As screwed up as this country is, we can still produce a Don DeLillo who can understand and explain us.

In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo. His past admirers included Nelson Algren, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, Harold Bloom, William Gaddis, and Philip Roth, and his present admirers include such figures as Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, Joy Williams, Martin Amis, David Remnick, and Joyce Carol Oates—a radically partial list. Younger writers who have learned important lessons from him include Marlon James, Rachel Kushner, Dana Spiotta, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, Joshua Ferris, Benjamin Kunkel, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, and Garth Risk Hallberg. Then there is the special case of the late David Foster Wallace, whose reading of White Noise while an undergraduate at Amherst sparked a very particular mixture of admiration and envy that probably ignited his own ambition for greatness. Over the decades he and DeLillo carried on a correspondence marked by reverence on Wallace’s part and sage kindness and patience on DeLillo’s. Wallace’s work is basically unthinkable without the example of DeLillo to have guided and inspired him.

That brings me to the fourth and final reason DeLillo should win the Nobel: the dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. He may be the last totally free man in American literature. He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career. His public appearances at readings and panels are sparse and spaced out and generally coincide with the needs and desires of his publishers when he has a new book coming out. He zealously guards his private life from the prying of the literary press, but his acquaintances and agents and publishers know him to be a modest and affable man who just happens to be a stone genius. He has in fact given enough interviews over the decades to fill an entire book of them, and in those interviews he speaks of his personal history, his intentions and obsessions as a novelist, his working habits, and, especially, the larger place of the writer in our culture with epigrammatic wit and unshowy eloquence. While his oft-repeated mantra is Joyce’s motto “Silence, exile, and cunning,” Don DeLillo has taken care to be perfectly understood.

As it happens, I conducted one of those interviews for the Hungry Mind Review in 1997 on the occasion of the publication of Underworld. I wrote about how in his body of work DeLillo “has been constructing ever more haunting geographies of American strangeness, capturing with his restless, acute, and unflagging intelligence the floating moods of a country unsure, it seems, of almost everything besides its own dread and uncertainty.” At the end of that interview I asked him about the paradox that in his own work the figure of the writer is often presented as someone afflicted with almost comic futility and powerlessness. This is, I noted, far from the way he himself is regarded or how he regards himself. DeLillo’s response was one I have never forgotten, and it is worth quoting:

The writer has lost a great deal of his influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of the culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way? And in my personal view this is a perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead center of things. . . . I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.

Twenty-three years on Don DeLillo is our most necessary writer, and the recognition of that fact by the awarding of the Nobel Prize is woefully overdue. Sound the klaxons, beat the drums, get this urgent conversation started. Then keep it going until justice is served.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.