Don't feel ignorant if you haven't heard of 1998 Nobel Literature laureate José Saramago. You're not alone. "I've been reviewing books all my life and I've never heard of him," says TIME literary critic Paul Gray. "Of course that doesn't imply in any way that he's not worthy of the prize."
In selecting the 75-year-old left-leaning Portuguese novelist, the Nobel committee has upheld something of a tradition of celebrating voices outside of the mainstream of Western literature. "The committee would always deny that they take into account geopolitical considerations and a desire to spread the wealth, but looking at their record there's no question that they do," says Gray. Saramago's work is brimful of satire and allegory on Portuguese history and politics. And then there's his "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," which has Jesus questioning his role and challenging God -- he may have won a Nobel Prize, but the NEA wouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pole.