The Nobel committee does not singularly rule over the world republic of letters
Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.
Some years, we hardly know the person, so we scramble to find out something about them, looking for bits of their writing online. Other years, like 2016, it goes to a more prominent person. Some are elated, others find the choice intriguing, while still others express disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else they consider more deserving.
But it is only one prize given to a single person, and truth be told, every year there are dozens of valid contenders from around the world.
I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we — whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it — behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?
In reality, the Swedish Nobel Committee is merely a handful of jurors from a small country of less than 10 million, speaking a language that is one of the smaller ones in the world. The current committee has five full members and two associates.
They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know a thing about them or their writing. They are probably all white, and, for sure, all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women.
Nominations come from writers and academics around the world, and the committee probably has staff that helps them select and read nominees.
The weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we — whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it — behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature?
But, at the end of the day, given who they are, given where they are based, they will no doubt have a certain predilection for European/European-origin writers, and, over the long haul, will privilege European languages. Sometimes, they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are always the interesting choices.
I understand that the Nobel Committee set up the Literature Prize to be the first global literary prize. That was certainly gutsy of them. It helped that this was virgin territory, and perhaps because there were no other contenders, the Nobel Literature Prize would become known as the world’s premier award for literary work. Of course, it helped that the prize was based in a small, more or less neutral, European country, outside of the big-power divisions of world politics.
But did people immediately accept it as the premier award for letters? Or was it seen as an interesting new fad, with people reserving judgment until it curated a list of awardees?
I doubt people all rose to applaud when the first prize was announced in 1901 for the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme.
Though it broke new ground here and there — awarding the prize to Tagore in 1913, for example — and, to some truly deserving writers, for most of its first half-century, the Nobel Prize was known more for its misses rather than for its hits. It was more notable for who it left out.
What did it mean when it awarded Pasternak, who’d been published outside Soviet censorship? Or then about Pablo Neruda, who’d sympathised with Soviet communism?
It is probably after the Cold War sparks dimmed, and the Nobel broke ground reaching out to writers outside the mainstream, that many of us came to expect it as the arbiter of people of letters, only a small number were recognised. That’s vital to remember: Even in the Western tradition, more significant writers have been left out by the Nobel than recognised. And if we are to mention under-represented literatures, the Swedes must be among the unhappiest lot: Their Academy has only rewarded seven over the life of the prize.
Still, despite outliers — two Japanese, two Chinese, a few from Africa and the Caribbean — the Nobel mainly privileges Western European writers and languages. When it reaches beyond, those of us from the world beyond Europe and North America applaud. But when it doesn’t, we are unhappy.
How long has it been since the decolonisation of most of the colonised world?
How long has it been that Japan has emerged as a major economic power from its WWII defeat? Or a number of Asian countries to emerge as developed economies? Or some African nations to rise as powerful countries?
Why is it that no one outside the West, no one in the South or East, has come up with a literary prize that might be more open to recognising talent from other corners of the planet?
Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are few. The Neustadt Prize is really the only other international award, and that’s run out of the University of Oklahoma.
Both its jurors and its nominees are often quite interesting, but we don’t line up like clockwork every two years to await the Neustadt Prize like we do the Nobel.
There are a few other prizes — the Man Booker International Prize, the International Dublin — but those tend to privilege the language English or translations into English.
There are some prizes specific to other languages, such as French or Spanish, and there are also some regional prizes. In Asia, until 2008, there used to be a Magsaysay Prize in the Philippines for “journalism, literature, and creative communication arts.”
There are plenty of billionaires and millionaires from the South and East today. No doubt, a few among them might even be partial to literature. Maybe. But why is it that no one has come forward to fund another international award that might be smarter than the Nobel?
In the end, I think we are all complicit in handing over the role of “world arbiter of literature” to the Nobel Committee. Let’s admit it — deep down, we all look towards Europe’s approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters. Our disappointment in the Nobel is a marker of our own insecurities, our lack of confidence.
No doubt this will change one day. Perhaps someone in a country of the South and East, not tied up in international power politics, someone with passion and integrity, will bring forth a more inclusive international prize. Not just a copy of the Nobel, but a smarter prize.
Until that day, we will perk up our ears every October and either celebrate or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm. And after a new prize arrives, we will switch our glee or ire to that new prize.
Mahmud Rahman is a freelance contributor.