On The Nobel Prize in Literature
With the impact of recognising Herta Müller as the 2009 Nobel laureate in literature slightly dampened by rising expectations that she would be the recipient I find myself still happy, like last year, that it has went to a writer I have no experience of reading. When this happens, it’s always a welcome recommendation from the Swedish Academy, like J.M.G. Le Clézio last year, who I have since read and enjoyed. I now look forward to reading one of Müller’s works in the near future.
The annoying thing about the Nobel is not the prize itself, but the predictable reactions that follow. If it’s not demonstrating exasperation over how unknown the writer is (see Another obscure Nobel Prize literature winner. Sigh!) it’s calls of the prize being Eurocentric because an American hasn’t won it for a number of years, such as this in the Washington Post:
The latest Nobel literature selection has revived chatter about whether the Nobel Committee favors European writers — even the most obscure ones — over Americans. Mueller, an ethnic German born in Romania, is the third European in a row to win the $1.4 million prize. It has been 16 years since an American won it (1993, Toni Morrison).
Sixteen years, eh? It’s been ninety-six years since an Indian won it and an additional two on top of that since a Belgian was recognised. And, still, there’s plenty of countries that have never produced a laureate. What so many seem to miss is that it’s not a national award but an individual one, as per the will of Alfred Nobel:
It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”
The American media may crow about how the prize is Eurocentric, especially fired up by then Permanent Secretaty Horace Engdahl’s comments in 2008 about how America is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the centre of the literary world but the big difference is that while America is a single country, Europe consists of fifty separate nations, each with their own history, politics, and culture. If the Academy recognised a writer from France one year it would still be a far cry from awarding a Hungarian, a Finn, or a Georgian the following year. They may all be European, but the worlds they inhabit will be completely different.
Instead of taking no American writer being recognised in recent years amost as a personal insult, the positives are still that, rather than having a reason to cheer on the nation’s favourite sons and daughters, there’s the possibility of a new writer to discover. Surely there’s been movement since that described by the first American laureate, Sinclair Lewis, in his 1930 Nobel lecture, The American Fear of Literature?
…in America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.
Perhaps that’s why Adam Kirsh, writing in Slate, made this daft comment last year:
The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become.
The ignorance surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature is something that becomes tiring after a while. What are we to think, for example, of a group that overlooked the likes of Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and so on? Nothing, I’d say. Authors live and die and the Academy can’t predict that. It may be that Nabokov was in with a shout of winning the Nobel in 1977 but went and disqualified himself by dying in July that year. It may not be. There’s no point second guessing the normally secretive Swedish Academy. Just enjoy their recommendations. Or not. But let’s not bring nationality into it. It goes against the idea of the prize.
October 13, 2009