The annual game of shadows and mirrors that accompanies the October announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature is in full swing. The Millions, a US online literary magazine, has published ‘An Open Letter to the Swedish Academy’, practically begging that Philip Roth be granted the prize, currently worth in excess of A$1,000,000. The letter’s writer is Michael Bourne, a Brooklyn writer of fiction and literary journalism, who writes, “Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies?”
While the stature of Roth’s achievement is undeniable, his position as a writer of great prose isn’t beyond argument. Earlier this year, when Roth was granted the biennial Man Booker International prize at the Sydney Writers' Festival, Carmen Callil, one of the judges, quit over the decision, saying,“I don’t rate him as a writer at all, I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the long list, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn’t admire – all the others were fine.”
While the million-dollar purse and ‘lifetime achievement’ quality makes the Nobel Prize for Literature the world’s highest-profile literary award, like every other prize the Nobel has its fair share of eccentricities. Not least among them is the stipulation by the endowment’s original benefactor, dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, that the prize be granted to a writer who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Precisely what an “ideal direction” might be is hard to define – Leo Tolstoy allegedly didn’t win a Nobel because his work wasn’t perceived as being “ideal” enough.
In a recent Guardian online podcast, Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, defined literary worth and cultural importance as the two most significant qualities in deciding on the Nobel winner. In the same interview, Englund acknowledges that European literature is disproportionately represented among Nobel winners, adding that this is a natural consequence of the fact that the Swedish academicians are most exposed to European literature. Englund rejects the charge that Nobels are occasionally awarded on the basis of positive discrimination and adds that the Academy tries to be more inclusive by commissioning special, secret translations of major works by significant authors writing in non-European languages. Many canonical authors, including Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov and Borges, are not on the list of winners, which instead features names that have fallen into complete oblivion, like the inaugural 1901 winner, Sully Prudhomme, who was praised at the time for his “poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”.
There is no shortlist for the Nobel, but this in itself isn’t enough to dissuade publishers from re-releasing certain novels in the lead-up to the announcement and speculators from putting their hard-earned on the rumoured favourites. This year, the 81 year-old Syrian poet Adonis, the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, is the odds-on favourite, not just because of his own achievements but also because of the events known as the Arabic Spring. “A combination of artistic excellence and social justice have often played well with the Nobel committee,” writes the LA Times blog, Jacket Copy.
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