Posted by: Yorgos | October 6, 2011

Text 41 – The Nobel Prize in Literature

As much as I would like Thomas Pynchon to have won this year’s Nobel Prize, it seems that my wishes do not coincide with that of the Scandinavians. However, I do not want to comment on the winner and whether the poet, Tomas Tranströmer, deserves the prize or not. Apart from the random poem quoted in various websites after the announcement, I have not read him and I do not have an opinion on his work.

What I would like to comment on is the way we look at the prize, since I’ve taken part in various debates the past few days concerning the merits of the winners, the politics involved, the obsessions of the academy and so on.

First of all, the Nobel prize in literature seems to be a prize that nobody thinks highly of, while at the same time wishes for their favorite writer to win. This must be some strange psychological reaction related to the fact that our tastes and likes need to be confirmed through not only the people whose opinion matters to us, but also through those who are indifferent and have no bearing on our behavior. There is a strong possibility that I am wrong in this, but I can ask myself: Would I care if Pynchon won the prize? Of course I would, I would be glad. Do I care about some of the latest winners? Not really, no. Some of them I have never read and I probably never will. Would I think highly of the academy if they gave one to Pynchon? Not more than I do now. I have a lot of respect for them, even if it’s just for the fact that they make literature the center of attention for at least one day.

This brings me to my second point. If literature is brought to the center of attention through this prize, then what should be the role it takes up within the world of literature? Should it reward the established authors, those who have not only written good books but have also reached out to a big portion of the world’s population (Thomas Pynchon is no Dan Brown -and I’m glad that he isn’t- but all his books have been in print since they first came out. Millions have read him and many more will)? Should it give the opportunity to writers coming from places other than the mainstream book producing countries, writers who find it impossible to get the publicity (even among highbrow -as much as I don’t like this term, it is appropriate here- literature, publicity is essential) their work merits? Do politics come into place? So far the academy seems to be favoring the second option, but with a European bias. And that’s what’s unfortunate. Because if one wants to highlight the literary achievements of authors less known, one needs to look to the entire world. Sure there are Nobel laureates from almost everywhere, but the Europeans (even the last 15 years) are more.

The academy once criticized American literature about losing its connectedness to the world of literature, standing apart from the dialogue that is so essential for the literary work to progress. I agree that this dialogue is essential, but if American literature, read all over the world, is at this point, what does this say about Greek or Swedish literature, read only by few people? If dialogue is what we’re looking for, then we need to include the readers. Mainly the readers. But this means that the prize would be awarded to American and western European (read: British, French and German) authors almost every year, without a chance of opening up to new -yes, I’ll say it- markets.

I understand that it is difficult to keep this balance. As always, I have no answer to the problem, perhaps because I have not considered every aspect of it. But the question we need to answer first is: “What do we want the Nobel prize in literature to be?” The right answer might be different for everyone and it can be any of the options I mentioned above and many more. What is the answer for me? Well, I guess I want my favorite writers to be given this award as a confirmation of their art and my choices. I am interested in American literature for many reasons, one of which must be that the American culture is so prominent everywhere in the world. Does this make my wishes wrong or selfish?

As always, I welcome comments, suggestion and debate.

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