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

6 responses to On The Nobel Prize in Literature

  1. Rebecca Reid said:

    What great sentiments! I personally love the fact that this is a great writer that I haven’t read yet. Of course, there are plenty of great writers I’ve heard of that I haven’t read yet, but still, it’s a great bit of discovery.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Randy said:

    I find the American media xenophobic response personally embarrasing. After reading her Herztier (translated as The Land of Green Plums), I had to consider that the only way I would have discovered the best novel I have read this year was thanks to the Swedish Academy.

    I invite all americans in the ‘Herta Who’ camp to read Herztier and get back to us… what are you saying now?

  3. Steph said:

    What a wonderful and insightful post! One thing I actually enjoy about the Nobel Prize is that it seems to expand my reading so that I encounter authors I never would have heard of otherwise (and often they come from countries whose literature I’ve never experienced). And I have never been strayed wrong thus far when it comes to reading the Nobel Laureates.

    Of course it is wonderfully ironic that you link to an article that bemoans another unknown author winning the prize and then you also remind us of the quote last year about how Americans are too insular in their reading. It was just a fantastic juxtaposition. I also liked how the author of the EW article lamented the fact that the material in Müller’s book sounded daunting. Heaven forefend that Nobel winning literature should challenge us as readers intellectually! ;)

  4. An excellent analysis, Stewart, and one that I heartily second. I am not a big fan of the Nobel Prize for Literature but it does, consistently, point me toward authors whom I should read. I don’t necessarily like them all, but the Prize gives me a start. As for the American complainers, I would ask: What does Philip Roth (or John Updike before his death) say that is relevant to the rest of the world? I admire and respect them both, but it has to be admitted that their gaze is inward (and that is in no way a criticism) which seems to make the Nobel an unlikely award. Perhaps if the Americans opened up the Pulitzer to those authors who are not U.S. citizens there might be a legitimate argument.

  5. Stewart said:

    Randy, good to hear that Land Of Green Plums was enjoyable. I have it on my desk, along with The Passport.

    I also liked how the author of the EW article lamented the fact that the material in Müller’s book sounded daunting.

    I just wonder why he is even bothering to write an article if he has no authority to pass comment, having not read Müller.

    What does Philip Roth (or John Updike before his death) say that is relevant to the rest of the world? I admire and respect them both, but it has to be admitted that their gaze is inward (and that is in no way a criticism) which seems to make the Nobel an unlikely award.

    I’ll go with this, Kevin. As much as like what Roth I’ve read, I don’t think he’s worth a Nobel. Still, I’ve a long way to go with him and have only read minor works, so that may change. But of the American authors, were one to get it, I daresay he’s the one I’d plump for. Thomas Pynchon, no thanks. Cormac McCarthy, who I like, but…well, no. They’d probably go with someone out of leftfield and perhaps more protean, like William T. Vollmann, who I’d like to read one day…if he wrote a small book.

  6. Ronak M Soni said:

    Nicely said, Stewart.
    Looking forward to reading her, if and when I find one of her books in this damn country.

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