The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

English has appeared roughly twice as often as the next most represented language, French (fourteen laureates), which is in turn only slightly greater than two additional European languages: German, with thirteen, and Spanish, with eleven. The list continues with Swedish—and here we might pause to remember that the population of Sweden is just nine million, far less than that of a number of cities worldwide—and six more European languages follow: Italian, Russian, Polish, Norwegian, Danish, and Greek. It is only at this point that Japanese and Chinese finally break in with two laureates each.

If these numbers are supposed to be approximations or even representations of an ideal direction, we should ask ourselves if the compass is broken. After all, it seems hard—impossible is probably the more suitable formulation here—to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. Of course, one might wonder if we just need to recalibrate the data to see if the past skews our view of the present.

Yet of the past five writers to have been awarded the prize, three have written in English. Of the past ten, only one has written in a non-European language. And when looking at the last twenty, that number increases to . . . two. The Nobel site explains that, beginning in 1984, “attempts were being made ‘to achieve a global distribution.’” But whatever success it had in this respect was largely a result of recognizing writers working in English, including the laureates Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, and J. M. Coetzee. (To return to the gender imbalance once more: only eight women won in this twenty-three-year period of supposedly increased attention to who exactly walked away with the prestige and prize money.)

Of course, Kazuo Ishiguro is a worthy laureate. And no matter how much one might debate the choice of the utterly unpredicted and unpredictable Dylan, there is a case to be made—or at the very least a healthy debate to be continued—about what we ought or ought not consider the literary. It’s not the winners, in other words, who deserve our scrutiny as much as the group responsible for selecting them. Specifically, it’s a committee of four to five members, each of whom serves a three-year term and comes from the eighteen-member Swedish Academy, that takes on the bulk of the responsibility. In May, after sorting through nominations that have come in from all over the world, this committee presents its recommendations for five final candidates to the Academy as a whole, which then votes in October after Academy members have read and discussed those finalists during the summer. To be named a laureate, a candidate must receive more than half of the votes cast.

Because records of nominations are sealed for fifty years, speculating about the choices being made is far more difficult than examining how the recipients align with the sole criterion set forth by Nobel himself. Yet what exactly “ideal” means in the context of the will is a delicate matter of translation—even in the original Swedish. A friend of Nobel’s claimed that the inventor of dynamite considered himself an anarchist who would not be dismayed to see any number of social institutions go up in smoke, which would indicate that “ideal” could mean something like “idealistic.” The word that actually appears in the document is idealisk, but those who have examined the handwriting suggest Nobel had originally written another word: idealirad, which does not exist in Swedish but was likely an attempt at idealiserad, which does exist and is usually rendered as “idealized.” All of this led Sture Allén, a former Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, to conclude that, for Nobel, idealisk does not mean “having the quality of the ideal,” which might be as troublingly prescriptive as idealiserad, but rather “referring to an ideal.” What the ideal might be, however, remains unclear.

The most obvious benefit of such vagueness is that it allows each generation to define such a fuzzy concept for itself. Although the Academy does not provide any elaboration or clarification, looking at the brief citations that accompany the prize announcement can shed at least a little light on how we might orient ourselves to understand the meaning of “an ideal direction.” These brief texts, which appear in the initial press releases, constitute a first formulation of a justification for conferring the award on a particular writer.

Restricting ourselves to just the last ten years—a sample big enough to be interesting yet small enough to remain manageable—we note that the Academy repeatedly singles out for recognition new views of what they somewhat naively and confusingly label reality. Ishiguro’s citation, for instance, indicates that he received the award because “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Patrick Modiano, the 2014 laureate, “evoked the most ungraspable human destinies,” while Mo Yan, the only writer in this sample not working in a European language, employs a “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” J.M.G. Le Clézio is an “explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” Yet the citation that seems to best capture what the Academy appreciates can be found in their description of their compatriot Tomas Tranströmer, who “gives us fresh access to reality.”

The problem is that, Mo Yan aside, any reality that these laureates have depicted is often one that is rooted in elements or ideas that the Academy cannot find all that strange. These writers might provide unexpected interpretations or renderings of the familiar, but they’re not radically unfamiliar. A lack of linguistic diversity, in other words, roughly correlates with the narrow scope of a concept that the committee repeatedly draws on when announcing the award.

It’s at that early announcement stage that we as readers might start to register our disagreement with definitions of an ideal through a strategy of complete disengagement. Rather than getting consumed with the inevitable controversy over a given year’s selection, we should indicate that we will no longer give it so much weight. Let’s take the resources devoted to breathless anticipation, ridiculous betting, or temporary sales bumps and instead devote them to encouraging a more widespread, active, and consistent participation in the literary sphere that leaves little room for the Nobel to wield so much cultural weight. It could continue to acknowledge what an engaged public already supports—as with the recent awards for long-popular figures like Munro, Dylan, and Ishiguro—while we instead recognize our collective ability to define an ideal direction that is far more diverse and far more encompassing.

Sam Carter is an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote.


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