A note to the Nobel committee

“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.” — Annie Dillard

Perhaps it as escaped your notice, but all “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” are not European, and neither is their focus restricted to fiction.

That said, Annie Dillard’s literature invites your consideration.

Much has been written about the lack of precision in the passages in Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will outlining the scope and intent of the Nobel Prizes. Yet, within the world of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, outstanding work seeks (and finds) its own angle of repose, and there it sits like a beating heart within the body of all literature as that which best sustains the art within its time and place. Its pulse beat is unmistakable. Had Nobel been more precise, our definition of great literature might have had the clarity of a very small pond.

Much has been written about the great precision author Annie Dillard brings to her fiction and narrative nonfiction, including her Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and her metaphysical exploration of God, pain and suffering, Holy the Firm.

In spite of Dillard’s well-developed powers of observation and the precision with which she describes that she sees, critics and other readers have not been able to pigeon-hole the author’s intentions and stance. Henry David Thoreau’s influence on her work is obvious; her work also calls to mind such nature writers as Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey as well as the transcendent quality of anthropologist Loren Eiseley.

Yet, in an age where knowledge and respect for the natural world tend to go hand in hand with advocacy, Dillard’s focus is nonjudgemental. She observes and writes without bias and without prescription.

As Pamela A. Smith wrote in her essay The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence, Dillard is hard to pin down in the realms of theology, ecology and ethics.

“Dillard dazzlingly and fearsomely expresses what most people never pause to notice. That facility with language and capacity for sitting still and remaining awake to detail constitute her great gift. Her central contribution to ecotheology is that she displays, in minutiae, what has been and what still exists in a number of significant bioregions. She also exhibits for the ecological thinker that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon: an inability to move from observation to ethic, a sense of personal insignificance and alienation, a tendency to let things alone,” writes Smith.

Dillard’s work returns again and again to the natural world and to man’s place within it. While critics and other readers might be more comfortable if her writings could be defined with a short, crisp, unambiguous statement, such a thing would greatly limit the scope of Dillard’s most outstanding work in an ideal direction.

In her New York Times review of Dillard’s 2007 novel The Maytrees, Michelle Green aptly sums up the author to the extent that that’s possible: “In the three decades since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the nonfiction debut in which she introduced a prose style so gorgeously precise that every sentence sang, this poet, essayist and journalist has written nine original volumes powered by spare but brilliant language.”

An ideal direction, to be sure.

A recent suggestion by critic Janice Harayda that I consider what nature writer might be worthy of the Nobel Prize was the welcome catalyst for this post.



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7 thoughts on “A note to the Nobel committee

  1. I hope the committee for this one does a better job than the Peace Prize committee did on theirs. In my opinion, that award amounted to a cheap political statement from a poorly informed group of European trolls and served mostly to create a general feeling of disrespect for the entire Nobel process. By their standards, a pig should get the prize in physics for merely filing a flight plan.

    1. I was surprised by the Peace Prize this year; my impression is that the President and his administration were also surprised, if not a little embarrassed. Clearly, the prize was based on promises rather than actions. Anyone can make a promise, but carrying it out is another thing again.

  2. Malcolm,
    Loved this post. Annie Dillard is exactly the sort of writer who might get far more serious consideration if the Nobel judges had a broader definition of “literature” and took nonfiction more seriously. (It appears that James Boswell wouldn’t have had a chance with the Swedish Academy.) Dillard was the ideal choice for this column.

    I’ve never seen Dillard on any list of potential Nobel candidates, but by my lights she’s worthier than some Americans you do see, such as Don De Lillo. Maybe some of your visitors will have other thoughts on nonfiction writers whom the judges should consider?

    1. Hi Jan,

      It would be nice to see a groundswell of reader support for those writing nonfiction, including history, biography and ecology. Dillard has had time to create a body of work. much of it in magazines where it takes a bit of tracking down to find. Could it be that a woman named “Annie” rather than “Anne” cannot be taken seriously by the Nobel committee?


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