Selecting the Nobelistas

In this section, Wyn Kelley discusses how she developed the reading list for Nobelistas.

I chose the Nobel as the focus for the Prizewinners class because in 2013 Alice Munro has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Thirteen women have won the prize since its inception, and very few people are still familiar with their work. Creating the reading list for the course was an opportunity to expose students to literature they might not have read before and to work with some authors I didn’t know and would find challenging. I really liked the experience of saying to students, “I don’t know much about this author,” because I’m so used to teaching authors about whom students expect to know nothing and me to know everything.

Ultimately, I chose July’s People for the Nadine Gordimer reading. For the Toni Morrison reading, I selected Song of Solomon, which is her most conventional novel. Most of her other novels resist conventional narratives like the marriage plot or the bildungsroman, but Song of Solomon is closer to those forms—and I wanted to have one book on the list that was really recognizable as a narrative. For Herta Müller, I selected The Appointment, a novel I had not read before and found challenging. Three short stories comprised the Doris Lessing readings: "A Mild Attack of Locusts," "Myself as Sportsman," and "The Stare." It was a great loss not to read one of her novels, but they are often long and often make up a group or trilogy, and it seemed impossible to convey the depth and grandeur of her work, so I opted for a small taste. The course reading list ended with Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

I really liked the experience of saying to students, ‘I don’t know much about this author.’

—Wyn Kelley

I selected these particular readings because I wanted to provide students with a list that didn’t have a logical narrative. When I teach my American Novel course, I start in the 18th century, and go to the 20th century. The readings create a historical arc. There was none of that in Nobelistas. The coherence came from finding connections between the authors and their works. For example, looking at Gordimer’s, Morrison’s, and Müller’s work together led to observations about political alienation in each of the novels. The Appointment and July’s People are political novels very much rooted in their historical periods. They are about people trying to make sense of alien and perplexing environments. Morrison works with this theme more obviously in books like Beloved, in which slavery and history are alienating. There are these elements in Song of Solomon, but the novel is not so obviously political in that way. Munro is often taken as someone who is not alienating—her subjects seem domestic and familiar. But what she does with them is so strange! So we found ourselves seeing connections that we didn’t expect. That doesn’t always happen when I have a surer sense of how the novels fit together.