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, read some snatches of their writing available online. Other years it’s a more prominent person and many of us express our disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else we think would have been more deserving.
But why do we, whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it, tend to behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it is the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters? When in fact all that it is is a committee 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, two associates. They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know anything about them or their writing. They are probably all white, for sure all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women. I am sure they have staff that helps them pick out and read and discuss nominees. 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 no doubt privilege European languages. Sometimes they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are interesting choices.
I am not sure when the Nobel Literature Prize became synonymous with the premier world award for literary work. I doubt it happened right away when the Prize was first announced. It of course helped that the Prize was centered in a small, more or less neutral European country.
But the rest of us are of course complicit in how we have handed over that role to the Swedish committee. From where I stand, the weakest critique of the Nobel is when we criticize it for not recognizing someone outside the European mainstream.
How long has it been since decolonization of most of the colonial world? 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 recognizing talent from our sides of the planet?
Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are very 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 Impac Award from Dublin – but those tend to privilege English or English in translation. None of these awards are based outside North America and Europe.
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. Very deep down, we all look towards European approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters.
Perhaps 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 smarter international prize. Until that day, we will meet every October and either toast or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm.