For whom the Nobel tolls

Regional bias, judging foibles and stupidity can decide who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

While much of the media’s attention over this year’s Nobel Prizes was over Barack Obama’s shock Nobel Peace Prize Award, a similarly contentious (if more under the radar) Nobel Prize went to Romanian/German author Herta Müller. Müller, while critically well-regarded, was seen as a long line of winners who have benefited from peculiar Nobel Prize criteria : largely European, politically minded, a bit of pessimism with a tinge of humanism, formally difficult to a point – but not too difficult, adult, and carrying a sense of nobility. These criteria in some part stem from the Nobel Prize’s original rationale – a commemoration of people who “bestowed the greatest benefit on mankind” and specifically in terms of literature who did so “in an ideal direction”.
Notwithstanding the obvious problem of trying to compare individuals in artistic spheres, the Nobel Prize is an extremely prestigious award to win. For this very reason, it’s an important artistic moment in a calendar year. Least of all is the prize-money, a large amount for writers who by-and-large aren’t commercial best-sellers – 2008’s winner J.M.G. Le Clezio won 10,000,000 Swedish kronor. Associate Professor Mark Williams, of the English department at Victoria University (and who has been on the judging panels of the Commonwealth Prize) says “it’s worth a hell of a lot of money, which is no small thing. It’s obviously important for the person who wins it, but it concentrates public attention on it.”
The prestige of the award can open up global markets to writers who hadn’t had the commercial kick of others well-known literary awards (the Booker Prize, The National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize). Herta Müller’s book The Land of Green Plums jumped from 78,235th most popular book on Amazon to seventh in the week she was announced as the winner. VS Naipaul’s individual book sales reportedly went from 1,000 a year to 30-40,000 a year.

The Nobel Prize also has a reputation as being more considered than other literary awards such as the Booker Prize, even if the selection process is as problematic as other awards. Williams says “it is the poster prize isn’t it? It’s the prize people think of, it’s one which marks not just particular excellence, but general excellence. You think the person who has gained it, has gained it not for just one particular book, or scientific discovery, or achievement in the public world, but is part of a larger pattern in that person’s lifework.”
Alfred Nobel’s criteria and the judges’ choices have led to some interesting omissions. And this started right from the first award. The original winner in 1901 was French poet Sully Prudhomme, a heavily criticised choice. His win was greeted by an open letter from 42 writers and artists denouncing the choice. Prudhomme and his fellow Parnassian poets were once subjected to Arthur Rimbaud yelling “merde” at the end of every line of their poems at a public reading, and he was subsequently passed off as second class by the likes of Proust.
However he benefited from the idea that the writers had to present a “lofty and sound idealism”, which led to the early years ignoring writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. As the decades have progressed other famous and influential writers who never won include Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Chinua Achebe, Jorge Luis Borges or James Joyce. One of the more notorious awards involved Nobel Prize judges Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson awarding the 1974 to themselves – over fellow nominees Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene and Saul Bellow. (Nabokov and Greene never won the award).
Williams suggest this could be from a tension of the words Nobel/noble. “The thing about prizes, there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness. It’s easier to discern patterns which are more accident than design. But it looks to me, the thing about the Nobel : one, it is a name corresponding to someone who made a vast amount of money out of armaments, and it’s associated with Sweden, one of the great armament producers of the world actually, and which is also the land of enlightenment. They want to stress enlightenment, universal values, a little sort of pinkish but not too far to the left, not Janet and John simplicity, but they don’t want to let the avant-garde in. They also want an air of nobility.”

This has led to many formal innovators not winning – often because the writer’s politics have affected their reputation. Nabokov had Lolita. Tolstoy apparently, according to the judges, “condemned all forms of civilisation”. Nobel just didn’t like Zola. Kafka was barely published. Borges accepted an award from Pinochet. Proust’s concerns were more philosophical than political (and he wasn’t as revered in his lifetime as he is in contemporary times). Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an extreme anti-Semite. Ezra Pound wrote speeches for Mussolini.
An obvious issue is trying to determine before ‘time’ what a writer’s critical reputation is going to be, decades later. Williams speculates that perhaps “they do go for writers by and large who present some degree of formal difficulty, so that the reading experience isn’t too easy – they’re not going to give it to To Kill a Mockingbird for example, which is a moral fable which illustrates a lot of values you might associate with it – but they don’t want writers at the cutting edge. They want writers when it’s been kind of domesticated. A familiar modernism, an Oprah Winfrey modernism.” Another category of writing ignored is children’s writers, who are unlikely to fit the scope of Nobel’s original vision.

However, for an award which has gone to many Americans in the scientific, economic and political field, American writers have struggled to be accepted by the Nobel judges. Literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner won, while critically contentious writers such as John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison were also rewarded. However, many other noted US writers, from Mark Twain to Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and William Gaddis have been ignored. Williams says, with regard to the ‘post-modernists’, “I can see why [they’ve been ignored]. Because they present levels of difficulty that wouldn’t seem ‘productive’. The people on the committee, are politicians, or selected by politicians.”
American writers have suffered from patronising European views. Horace Engdahl, a member of the judging panel in 2008 stated that the United States is “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining… You can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.”
Further, non-European writers have been largely ignored. For example throughout its history, more writers from Sweden have won Nobel Prizes for Literature than writers from the Asian continent. Williams suggests “there are three possible explanations for this. One is Sweden has produced a far greater number of truly world class writers than Asia. Possibly unlikely (laughs). Another is they tend to look at themselves a little too closely. There’s also maybe, some sort of weird politics which go on in the prize, which I can’t really account for. That really is a significant overlooking.”
The influential Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe hasn’t won – largely because his contemporary, Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986. While, a number of Swedish or French writers have won from the same generation, apparently two Nigerians cannot win. Those who have won from non-European countries have been read (not necessarily pejoratively) as displaying “European” characteristics. Part of the issue will be language – writing in a non-European language will lose considerable effect upon translation, and most judges would be unable to read the writers in the original language.
That said, despite all this, the award maintains considerable clout, and some of the 20th Century innovators and giants have been rewarded, figures such as Samuel Beckett, André Gide, TS Eliot and W.B.Yeats. Williams says “Sure they left out some great authors, but a lot of publishers left out some great authors. They’re opinions, they never come from God. That’s the truth about judging isn’t it? They are opinions. There’s nothing so terrible about that. There’s nothing so terrible about getting it wrong. It’s the odds over a long time that counts. If the Nobel Prize consistently got it wrong, always got it wrong, but I don’t think it has done that.” ENDS