20 April 2009

No Nobel for words? I don't think so....

I hadn't read the Post this week so I was pointed in the direction of this article by the Elegant Variation blog by Mark Sarvas. Thanks!

Marie Arana, whose opinion I generally respect, wrote an op-ed piece calling for the elimination of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Oh, really?

Arana's main argument is that the "Nobel has shown a breathtaking proclivity for exalting minor literary talent. From first to last the choices have shown a lack of critical judgment and a surfeit of political zeal." She notes that the committee skipped over Tolstoy, Proust, Kafka, Borges, Conrad, Greene, and Nabokov and choose middling authors in-line with the committee's left-wing politics. Arana only notes two "native-born" leftist Americans who "wrested the laurels away" and won the prize: Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck. She concludes by stating that she believes only 15 of the 105 winners deserved the prize.

Oh please. Only 15? At least half of the list is deserving of the award and some of the others I've never read so I can't make a judgement call regarding appropriateness of the award. I don't read French beyond tourist French so I only recently acquired a copy of a Le Clezio in English; similarly, a number of the initial Laureates were Swedish and long out of print so I can't make the call on those. I think some of this sentiment comes from the fact that non-English authors (and even non-American authors in the case of some Brits) have a hard time getting published, even translated, in the US. I can't speak for other countries and languages as to whether they consider some of their Laureates to be of "minor" talent.

And as to those lonely "native-born" leftist Americans? Did you forget about Toni Morrison (1993)? I don't think she's terribly right-wing. Sinclair Lewis (1930)? Eugene O'Neill (1936)? We also have Faulkner and Hemingway and claim Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Czeslaw Milosz in part. None of them strikes me as terribly conservative. TS Eliot was born in the US and he's got an anti-Semitic streak (it's large or small, depending on the critic you read).

Yes, there are major authors who were very deserving of the award and skipped over (i.e. Edith Wharton, and that is a crying shame) but when you only award one award per year to an author that is living and expected to still write you're going to miss a few and there were a number of years where the prize was never awarded so we're short about seven Laureates. Arana also calls out missed novelists and seems to forget that the Nobel Prize for Literature goes beyond novelists to include poets and playwrights (she also called Steinbeck "merely average" which is a low blow; he might not be my favorite but he certainly is good). Pinter and Pirandello are both excellent playwrights and Heany and Walcott are both wonderful poets. I'd also like to add that you have to be nominated for the prize and that the nominees are kept secret for fifty years. This page at the Nobel website explains the process to a degree.

We also have to remember that the committee is making a judgement call on taste and ability. Absolutely no two humans on Earth will have the exact same opinions on taste or ability of another human. As my dad says, unless you're running against the clock (which is impartial) the judge will always be a partial observer.

In short, I think she's out of line and she sounds bitter. She must have had money on Updike to win the last one in 2008. As for myself, I'd rather try and read most of the Laureates' works before I pass judgement on all 105 of them (and that's going to take some time).

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure we should get rid of the Nobel, but I agree with her opinion. It's more of a political prize than a literature prize. Take a look at the winners during WWI and WWII: The Academy intentionally recognized authors from neutral countries. And it continues to be that way. Wonder why Updike never won? Because of Bush and Iraq. And you can forget about Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy, or, for that matter, any American author winning any time soon. Pinter was a very outspoken critic of the Iraq war, which explains his Nobel. Lessing is also a critic of the US, who even went so far as to suggest that Obama will be assassinated if he's elected president. Grass's Nobel seemed more like a correction than anything else. He was a frontrunner in the seventies, but finally won in the nineties, long after he peaked. (No doubt they're kicking themselves for that one.) But think about Grass's politics post-WWII, you start to understand why the Academy likes him so much. And how many people remember that Winston Churchill won a literature Nobel? (It should be noted that he was very conservative, and anti-Semitic, so he puts the lie to the whole left-wing argument.)

    I'm not trying to denigrate the talents of those who won. Some deserved it. Most, in my opinion, don't. I just find it slightly amusing that many still see the Nobel as a literature prize only. It's not. Politics plays a huge part. It always has and always will. To get a better perspective on why certain authors won, you have to look at what was happening in the world, and what the author stood up for. Take Nadine Gordimer, for instance. Yep: a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner. See what I mean?