This year the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to Tomas Tranströmer, a relatively obscure poet from Sweden. The Prize committee explained that the selection was made because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” Response from the media has been mostly positive, although the committee was prepared to defend itself against accusations of bias because they had chosen a Swede.
“We have been quite thoughtful about this, not being rash in choosing a Swede,” [the academy’s permanent secretary, Peter] Englund said, noting that Transtromer’s works have been translated into about 60 languages. “He is well known among people who read poetry.”
Still, the New York Review of Books blog called out the prize for its “essential silliness” by describing the impossible amount of material that the prize’s 18-member jury has to review in order to narrow down to a single recipient.
Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book. But this is a prize that goes to the whole oeuvre of a writer, so let’s suppose that as they hone down the number of candidates they now read two books of those who remain, then three, then four. It’s not unlikely that each year they are faced with reading two hundred books (this on top of their ordinary workloads).
Across the pond, the book blogger at the Guardian UK called the Prize’s recipients in general “a curious club” and delineated their many failings as role models alongside the selection committee’s failure as judges of cultural merit. It’s a pretty harsh survey of the 108 years of the Prize.
Ironically, the best description of the parameters used to select these luminaries may come from an unlikely source, gambling. This year, according to an article at the Huffington Post, the in-house literary analyst for Ladbrokes gave Tranströmer’s victory 9-2 odds, the second best of any author on his short list.
That one well-read oddsmaker has to take into account far more than just a writer’s fame and body of work. He must consider a writer’s age (the Academy prefers to honor older writers), gender (the Academy has made statements acknowledging that is hasn’t honored enough women), as well as whether the writer’s name has been floated previously for the award. He also has to consider where a writer is from, as the Academy has made a point in recent years to think more globally. Last year’s winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, was the first South American to win the award since 1982.
Such a formula can be worked out for the simple reason that there is an obvious skew to the selection process. The question that none of the critics address is, however, how much does that really matter? I would suggest that those seeking to dismiss the prize due to its lack of objectivity are missing the point entirely.
There will always be a slant to any prize selection process in literature, because literature is by design subjective.
The importance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, overblown as it may be, is not so much who actually wins, but rather the attention their victory brings to literature in general. The patina of the Nobel Prize is extended to everyone toiling over words, whether they win any of the money or not.
We should have more literary prizes like this, not less. More attention to writers of all kinds, and to words. People need to be encouraged to seek out that “fresh access to reality.”