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How Fleeting is Fame?

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books about the late John Updike, Julian Barnes discusses the fact that this great writer never received the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is certainly much prestige associated with the Nobel and the announcement of each winner is a major event that can change the career trajectory of an author and his or her long-term reputation. As a result, the outcome of the deliberations of the Nobel Prize committees (and others) has always fascinated me. Among those that I follow are the Pulitzer Prizes in letters, drama, and music that go back to 1917, the MacArthur Fellows (the so-called “genius” awards that always have had good representation from the arts and have been given since 1981), and, the granddaddy of them all, the Nobel Prize in Literature that has been given since 1901. Given the great acclaim that goes with these prizes, I was curious about how well the committees’ choices advance recipients’ reputations over time, so I recently checked the Pulitzer list, the MacArthur list, and the Nobel list to see how many of the names I recognized. Initially, I was surprised at how many were unfamiliar, and I was prepared to conclude that the various committees are simply not very effective or dependable. But a recent piece on National Public Radio about one of the Nobel recipients I had never heard of from half a century ago – the Norwegian writer Halldor Laxness – gave me pause. His 1946 book, Independent People, has just been retranslated into English and several reviewers and writers were claiming that it was one of the great works of fiction. So I went out and purchased it. Not only was I tremendously impressed and moved, I also began to wonder whether it would be worthwhile to educate myself by searching out the work of other individuals on these lists who are unknown to me. Sometimes fame is fleeting, but great work remains to be discovered.

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