1. Leo Tolstoy – 1908 (Instead of Rudolph Eucken)
The Russian master Tolstoy is one of the greatest novelists in the entire canon of World Literature. War and Peace, Anna Karenina and my personal favorite, The Death of Ivan Ilych are taught and studied worldwide as some of the finest novels ever written. By comparison, the German philosopher Eucken has not only not stood the test of time, having played no serious role in 20th century philosophy, but was not even particularly important in his own era. His is a case, all too common with the initial thrust of the prize, where ‘idealism’ was sought above all else in an author’s works.
2. Mark Twain – 1904 (Instead of Frederic Mistral)
Twain would’ve beaten Sinclair Lewis, a very good but not great author, to the punch by 26 years for title of first American Laureate had he been given the prize in 1904. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is widely regarded as one of, if not the best American novel. Other great works have become critical to the canon, from The Prince and the Pauper to Tom Sawyer. Instead that year it was awarded to two authors: Jose Echegary – an important Spanish playwright, and Frederic Mistral – an essentially useless poet. Mistral wrote in Occitan, a language that is practically unknown. His poetry is, by a generous standard, saccharine in an unpleasantly pastoral way.
3. Jorge Borges – 1974 (Instead of Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson)
Argentine author Jorge Borges’ short stories radically transformed the genre. Seen as a classic collection in his own time, and achieving international fame by the early 1960s, works such as “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” and “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” should’ve secured his winning the title of Laureate before he died in the 1980s. He is listed third, however, since the 1974 Nobel Prize was one of the most scandalous. Martinson and Johnson were, at the time, both members of the Nobel Committee, and shamelessly nominated themselves for the award. Both Swedish, adding to the skewed number from that country, neither is considered amongst the finest in their field, even in their home country.
4. James Joyce – 1939 (Instead of Frans Sillanpaa)
The most important modernist of the 20th century was not an idealist – far from it – and likely did not receive the award on this count. Of course novels such as Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are now considered among the finest in the English language. By 1939 Irish author Joyce had published his final great work, Finnegan’s Wake, and died within a couple years. Frans Sillanpaa, admittedly, is one of Finland’s great authors – but he simply can’t compare against Joyce’s incandescent brilliance and innovation. Not to mention that, as a Scandinavian, he adds to the overall problematic total of that part of the world. Further, he lived until 1960, so he could theoretically have gotten it later, unlike Joyce, since after 1939 the award was suspended during the War.
5. Henrik Ibsen – 1906 (Instead of Bjornstjerne Bjornson)
In an all-Norwegian battle, Ibsen should’ve gotten the award instead of Bjornson. The two make up half of the country’s Great Four literary talents. Ibsen was a critical playwright of the 20th century, with works like Hedda Gabbler and A Doll’s House paving the way for modernism in theater, tackling Edwardian taboos, and bringing to light important changing roles for women. Bjornson is considered one of Norway’s finest poets, but his poetry simply does not have the global reach and impact of Ibsen’s plays. Ibsen has stood the test of time, Bjornson, most certainly, has not.
6. Lu Xun – 1931 (Instead of Erik Axel Karlfeldt)
It is not surprising that China’s only received two Laureates, one in 2000, and the other in 2013. In communist China in the age of Mao, we must recall literature was not allowed to flourish – especially during the terror of the Cultural Revolution. Lu Xun, China’s foremost modernist, had already written the bulk of his critical stories by the 1930s, and was part of a famous leftist movement. Easily regarded as the most important Chinese author of the early 20th century, his reputation rests on short stories like “A Madman’s Diary,” “Storm in a Teacup,” and “The New Year Sacrifice”. Karlfeldt, once again, is a Swedish poet of moderate or mediocre talent who – surprise – years earlier had been on the Nobel Committee.
7. RK Narayan – 1962 (Instead of John Steinbeck)
Narayan is considered one of the foremost Indian novelists of the century. To date the massive country has had only one Laureate, Tagore in 1913. Unlike China, or Indonesia, there’s no dictatorship to blame for not being awarded more frequently for such a massive population. His trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher all helped bring India’s literature to international attention, especially since written in English. American novelist John Steinbeck, himself, stated that he did not deserve the prize. While The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men have flourished, much of his oeuvre is second-rate. Indeed, his being awarded the prize was due to a split in votes between some superior choices: Jean Anouilh, Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa), Robert Graves, and Lawrence Durrell. The whole mess could’ve instead been avoided with the indubitably-deserving candidate, Narayan.