A short history of the Nobel Prize in Literature

It’s been riddled with controversy, there are egregious omissions in the list of winners. But it remains an important reminder to read more widely, and in translation, across cultures and geographies.

It’s been riddled with controversy, there are egregious omissions in the list of winners. But it remains an important reminder to read more widely, and in translation, across cultures and geographies.

It is October, and it’s been that time of year again when the bookies urge people to discuss who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Except that, after the corruption and sexual assault scandals, I’m not sure anyone even cares any more.

It’s odd that it should have taken so long for it all to implode. It was already so improbable. The Swedish Academy was an elite and closed group ever since it was set up in 1786 to advance the cause of Swedish language and literature. Its membership consisted of 18 Swedish intellectuals, appointed for life in an arcane centuries-old tradition. The task before them, per Alfred Nobel’s wishes: to identify “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” – that is, to sit in judgment over the literature of the entire world, and mysteriously produce a winner out of a hat.

House of cards

It finally took over a hundred years of the Nobel Prize in Literature for change to come in the Academy, and only after a scandal. In 2018, Jean-Claude Arnault, the spouse of Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in prison. He had earlier been accused of sexual assault by 18 women. There were also charges of financial irregularities and corruption in leaking the names of prospective winners to the bookies. The head of the Academy stepped down. Some members withdrew. No literature prize was awarded in 2018. The scandal was profoundly damaging to the venerable reputation of the Academy, not least because Arnault used to brag about being its 19th member.

Following the crisis, the Academy has tried to become more transparent, but the damage has been done, and the sheen of the Nobel Prize in Literature, such as it was, will never again be the same.

A flawed premise?

Such as it was – because, more fundamentally, some commentators have pointed out that not just the selection process but the whole premise of the Prize is flawed. Writer Tim Parks has dismissed the whole idea of ​​a highly selective literary prize itself as “nonsense”. He points out that all prizes are a lottery, and literary prizes more so. Literature is neither a 100-meter sprint nor a football match; it is not about winning medals or scoring goals. Literature is a creative process that builds on a tradition that has existed before it, and speaks to a community of readers. To compare writers and writing across cultures and geographies for the sake of an elite prize, he says, is meaningless.

How is a Nobel Prize winner in Literature actually selected? According to the Academy website, nominations are invited from the following persons (and only from them): members of the Academy; members of academies and societies similar in membership and aims; professors of literature and language; former Nobel laureates in literature; and presidents of writers’ organizations which are representative of their country’s literary production. Nominations must be sent to the Nobel Committee only by regular post, and not email. Around 350 proposals reach the Nobel Committee every year. The Committee goes through the names and produces first a longlist of 200 names, and then a shortlist of 20-25 names. The list is further reduced to about five names before the Academy’s summer break.

The Academy members are then given access to the shortlisted authors’ works in complete secrecy, “while making sure that the works are studied without attracting the attention of even a fly on the wall.” When they finally meet to select a winner, members make detailed arguments in favor of their choices. But secrecy rules keep these accounts sealed “from outsiders” for a period of 50 years. Finally, in October, the Academy makes the announcement — as the website informs us, this is “always on a Thursday and always at one pm”

Arcane rituals may add to the mystique of the prize and the sense of long and hallowed traditions. However, a cursory look at the selections themselves, from the time the award was instituted, shows the extent of systemic bias. Over 121 years, only 16 women writers have been considered worthy of being awarded the Prize; and few persons of color. Most prizes have gone to writers working in English, followed by French.

Value of the prize

It is true that a top literary prize can provide never-before visibility to unknown writers. To that extent, many literary prizes are valuable because they bring to the attention of the reading public the works of writers like Patrick Modiano, Louise Gluck, and Svetlana Alexievich. But we should think about why this is so. Surely, by reading more widely, and in translation, across cultures and geographies, we can ourselves change the terms of how literary expression is assessed and valued.

( Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS. These are her personal views.)

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