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Is the Nobel Prize for Literature’s compass well and truly ‘broken’?

  • Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s win is encouraging
  • However, the Nobel Prize for Literature this year falls woefully short in its promises to amend its Eurocentric bias

Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Reuters
Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Reuters

Two Nobel Prizes in Literature were awarded this week—to Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke. If you’re just joining us: the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was cancelled for the first time since World War II amid sexual assault allegations, an ‘alternative Nobel’ was set-up in its stead, and the Swedish Academy postponed the 2018 prize to two in 2019. Referring to this most serious scandal to plague the prize, The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead concluded at the time that “With a prize purse of £836,000, however, a great many sins can, and will, continue to be forgiven". Adding to her tongue-in-cheek commentary, she said, “Who knows, the jury might even do something seriously face-saving, like awarding two women in the same year."

The world waited on the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes with bated breath.

The week leading up to the big reveals saw the annual flood of Nobel Prize memes courtesy Twitter. Nobel Prize savant Alex Shephard’s amusing and acerbic piece ended thus: “This is a rebranding year. If the Nobel Prize really wants to reclaim its former grandeur it has only one choice: Give not one but two prizes to people whose work is barely available in the United States." The week also saw Anders Olsson, new Chair of the Swedish Academy’s Literature Committee, confess the prize’s need to prioritize diversity and widen its perspective: “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature and now we are looking all over the world. Previously it was much more male-oriented […] we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope." Now, prize followers must wish we had taken Olsson’s words with a pinch of salt.

Why are many pretending like there’s only one (worthy) winner?

The cheeky ‘Good Morning to Olga Tokarczuk only’ variety of tweets aside, many seem to be in deliberate denial that the second of the two prizes went to Austrian Peter Handke, wondering if the Swedish Academy is seemingly in denial of Handke’s problematic politics. The Polish novelist is best-known in the Anglophone world for her “constellation novel", Flights (which won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize in translation) and for her latest novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. She may seem like a relatively young choice by Nobel Prize standards, if one considers her nascent presence in the Western publishing marketplace. But this is encouraging and true with Olsson’s statement since the Prize is generally looked to as a lifetime achievement prize. Tokarczuk’s monumental, magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, is scheduled to be out in English in 2021. However, she’s already a bestseller—also a political activist, feminist and dissident—in Poland. In a world of books where August is now celebrated as Women in Translation Month and where the long-list for the third Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was just announced, it is heartening to see this trio of super women (the author and her translators, both women) in the spotlight. It’s also encouraging to see the indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions, which recently turned five, secure two Nobels and one Booker in its short life so far. There’s no doubt that Tokarczuk, who has over a dozen books in Polish to her name, is a worthy winner. As Jennifer Croft—one of Tokarczuk’s two translators in English—wrote in the Paris Review yesterday: “Olga is the Nobel laureate. She’s the one the prize was made for."

The dark side of the prize

Meanwhile, Hari Kunzru, Fatima Bhutto, and PEN America, among others, condemned and regretted the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the fascist apologist Peter Handke a Nobel Prize (alongside the anti-fascist Tokarczuk). More cheekiness resulted: while Alex Shephard tweeted, “THE NOBEL MUST HEAR BOTH SIDES", Tilted Axis Press publisher Theodora Danek called it “so much chaotic energy" on the Nobel’s part. It takes only a Google search to familiarize oneself with his politics and another to find the pertinent The New Yorker profile on Tokarczuk’s diametrically opposed set of politics. And if you’re going for the “separate the art from the artist" angle, if Tokarczuk’s politics made her a more likely candidatefor the Nobel Prize—and it’s noteworthy that the Nobel Prize has a history of prizing dissidence—then why aren’t Handke’s politics relevant here?

When Alfred Nobel first conceived the five Nobel Prizes in 1895, he asked that the literature prize be awarded to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". In an essay titled “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass", written shortly after Kazuo Ishiguro’s win in 2017, Sam Carter (Managing Editor, Asymptote) invoked Alfred Nobel’s founding words—supplemented by statistics—to illustrate his point. From 1901 to 2017, only 14 women writers had won the prize, and of the 113 laureates thus far, 29 were English-language writers (this further followed by ten European languages). Carter noted: “If these numbers are supposed to be approximations or even representations of an ideal direction, we should ask ourselves if the compass is broken. After all, it seems hard—impossible is probably the more suitable formulation here—to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it." (After last year’s scandalous announcement, The New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz further cemented Carter’s sentiment: “The Nobel Prize in Literature is broken," she said.)

Writing after the 2018-2019 announcement, Shephard noted the one step forward, one step back double decision, which was not the clean break, the “rebranding" he was expecting: “… as Swedish journalist and Nobel-watcher Jens Liljestrand told me, ‘The prizes mirror the Academy’s identity crises.’ Handke was likely ‘a concession to the Academy old guard,’ while Tokarczuk represents the kind of new voice Olsson said he intends to elevate." This crisis, this contradiction is confusing. “Both awards show that, despite its professed global ambitions, the Nobel Prize in Literature is still bogged down in Europe," Shephard added. “Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s main mission these days is not to diversify or evolve, but to troll."

One cannot expect all that’s “broken"—years of imbalance and gross oversight—to be fixed in one year and following a single, albeit prestige-smashing scandal. But the Nobel Prize gave itself two shots—two prizes—at “rebranding", at redemption. As a researcher of literary prizes I have learned my lesson: it’s hard to expect the Nobel Prize to come through, to make a comeback, in terms of gender equality, geographical, and linguistic diversity, all in the same prizing year. Perhaps two out of three was wishful thinking, too—knowing it had found itself in a particularly desperate position to hold its own. Yet, the prizes went to two white European writers—if non-English writers. How has the Nobel Prize managed to stay stuck and so embarrassingly Eurocentric?

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.

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