A Notoriously Chancy Business
The Nobel Literature Prize
In a few weeks the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Literature Prize for 2021. If you are a sufficiently serious reader - or writer - you will already be huffing and puffing about how such prizes are meaningless and how they demean literature.
“The giving of prizes is a notoriously chancy business,” wrote William Gass. “Look at the mistakes the Nobel committee has made.” The winners of such awards “have a fruit fly’s lifetime, and oblivion serves their names.”
Ernest Hemingway. Leo Tolstoy. Thomas Hardy. Joseph Conrad. Graham Greene. Mark Twain. Roberto Bolaño. Vladimir Nabokov. Virginia Woolf. James Joyce. How could these titans of the craft be passed over for the likes of Sully Prudhomme, Bjørnsterne Bjørnson, Selma Lagerlöf, and Paul von Heyse? (who, who, who, and who?)
Jean-Paul Sartre famously refused to accept the Nobel Prize. “The writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution,” he declared rather Frenchly.
When John Steinbeck won, he’s reported to have privately admitted that he didn’t deserve it. His selection was bemoaned by literary critic Arthur Mizener, who thought him a cheap sentimentalist. “His limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.”
You’ll never please everyone. Trying to pick the best writer is simply an impossible goal.
Yet the Nobel Literature Prize usually lands on a good writer, and that’s all it has to be about: good writers. Not the best writers or even great writers, but good writers.
People love beating the prize over its head with these big lists of missed opportunities. Most of these authors died young (and thus were not eligible) or were passed over a long time ago.
In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare writes about a young man’s beauty, which he knows must fade with age. Yet it will also live on, immortalised in the words of the poem:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
It’s a beautiful image, but no poem or story is literally timeless. Literature means nothing unless you understand the language, the medium, and something of the age in which it came to be.
There's an element of history to this, which explains why a writer’s importance or quality is often not apparent until after they are dead. Writers go out of and back into focus all the time.
Moby Dick was not well-received in its day, and Herman Melville died poor. If he was known, it was for his more crowd-pleasing adventure tales. Had Max Brod not ignored Franz Kafka's will, he likely would have remained an obscure Austro-Hungarian short story writer.
Our imperfect recognition of a writer doesn’t diminish their work, and literature doesn’t start and end with the Nobel Prize. It’s easy to echo received judgement and sully the Prudhommes of the world. What’s harder to do - and infinitely more valuable - is to actually read him.
I understand why we parrot the judgements of the literati. Our individual lives are far too short to develop full opinions on the relative virtues of English, Chinese, Swedish, Igbo, Arabic, Nahuatl, and Bengali literature.
But the same goes for the members of the Swedish Academy. A popular criticism of the Nobel Prize is that it always seems to hone in on obscure Scandinavians. What else would we expect from the Swedish Academy though? And what on earth makes us think they would be qualified to know whether or not my uncle’s Tongan church hymns deserve literary glory?
Trying to “globalise” the Nobel Literature Prize is far more likely to distort world literature through the European gaze. I would prefer not to. Let the academy remain as Swedish and aristocratic as possible; so long as other traditions have space to recognise and encourage their own, literary parochialism is fine.
If the Swedish Academy continues to make picks according to what it is familiar with - Europe - I can be reasonably certain the winner will be a good writer of a certain sort. I don’t want the quality of their picks to be diminished by pressure to select from outside their competencies.
With this more grounded view of what a literature prize is, we can recover the Nobel as a useful barometer of what’s going on in a certain corner of the world. If nothing else, it's a good yearly reminder to read more books by new people, in an era which desperately needs it.
I don’t always agree with the winners, if I have even heard of them. But it’s rare that I come away thinking they weren’t good. After winning, their works will be translated into English and sold in local bookshops, which means I get the opportunity to read them.
Ever heard of Olga Tokarczuk? Me neither. Then she won the Nobel Literature Prize and now I can bike down to Tawa library and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is on the shelf there. And I’m pretty chuffed with that.
William Gass. Prizes, Surprises and Consolation Prizes. Published in the New York Times, May 5, 1985.
Jean-Paul Sartre. Statement to the Nobel Prize. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1964/12/17/sartre-on-the-nobel-prize/ on 08/09/2021.
Arthur Mizener. Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve the Nobel Prize? Published in the New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1962, p. 172.