I grew up believing that the Nobel Prize in Literature was sort of the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or those Duncan Hines signs that hung in front of decent motels. A Nobel Prize winner was an author you should check out, an author of verified greatness. With time, this reputation began to fray, as I noticed that some less-than-top-drawer writers, such as Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck, had collected this accolade. And some very great writers, such as James Joyce, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Eudora Welty had been ignored. So the Nobel committee’s track record was spotty, to say the least.
Then there was Nobel’s requirement that the prize be given to an author who has produced, in the field of literature, the most outstanding work in an ideal direction. In other words, the author’s work has to be in some way uplifting or improving. This stipulation is so elastic as to be meaningless, but it works a hardship on an author who was just trying to tell a story as best he or she could. It creates a hoop the writer has to jump through, and if you want to see how uncomfortable it could make certain writers, all you have to do is read Faulkner’s Nobel address, which sounds, under the circumstances, like a torture victim repudiating everything he has stood for his whole life.
The big question is, though, why do we place such faith in a committee whose workings, predispositions, and grudges we know almost nothing about? (Nothing personal against today’s winner, Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.) According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the prize for literature is determined by the Swedish Academy. Tenured for life and known as the “The Eighteen” in Sweden, this group of mostly Scandinavian scholars, linguists, and historians often defies expert speculation about their choices.
Of course, the Nobel announcement may tip us to a writer whom we’ve never heard of and should check out. I certainly would never have discovered Yasunari Kawabata when I was a teenager if it hadn’t been for his Nobel Prize. But any serious reader should be doing that anyway and not waiting for some remote body to direct us to the overlooked authors of the world.
Booksellers and publishers will say that prizes help sell books, and so we should support prizes. I see their point, and I understand that readers need all the help they can get when confronted with thousands of new titles a year (although I want to say that publishers could do us all, readers and writers alike, a huge favor by being more selective about what they publish in the first place).
Prizes do sell books. They can make reputations. At the same time, the Nobel and all the other literary prizes encourage a kind of laziness among readers. They create a false sense of what’s great, and that’s a decision that individual readers ought to be making on their own. They also endow literature with a sort of horse-race mentality, with winners and losers and also-rans. But literature isn’t a race or a game, no matter how much Hemingway talked about getting into the ring with Tolstoy. Literature is its own reward.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I do like the atmosphere that surrounds these selections in England, where bookies run a line on the favorites for both the Nobel and the Man Booker prizes. But least the English have a sense of humor about the whole thing, saying, in effect, OK, if it’s a contest, let’s treat it like a contest and make some money off of it. That may be crass, but at least it’s honest. But even the English system, ultimately, leaves me cold. But then again, I’m not a betting man.