Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
4th Cheltenham literary festival
11th Film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch
14th Man Booker prize ceremony
22nd 100 years since birth of Doris Lessing, winner of Nobel Prize in 2007
Doris Lessing was a British-Zimbabwean novelist famous for works rich in story, social commentary and political message. The Golden Notebook is one of her most extraordinary works drawing together themes of mental ill-health, fragmentation and separation into narrative woven story and interactive description.
In 2007 Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sarah Crown wrote a lovely piece about this in October 2007 which can be found here
The Nobel Prize for literature was famously not awarded in 2018 following an alleged sexual assault scandal and the complicated membership regulations, subsequently amended. The amendments also paved the way for changes in how awards are made. In that context, two winners were announced in 2019 – Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke – the latter author also subject to controversy because of his political views.
For this post I am interested less in the awards made – about which much has been written – or about Doris Lessing marvellous as she is, about whom there are almost as many words. This blog will focus instead upon both the process of award making and the relevance of the award to authors.
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish business, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist who, amongst other things, invented dynamite. Nobel was instrumental in weapons manufacture for which he was subsequently condemned as ‘the merchant of death’. Concerned about how he might be remembered, Nobel posthumously donated his amassed fortune to create a positive legacy – hence Nobel prizes for sciences, literature and contribution to international furtherance of peace.
Every year the body responsible for managing the process of making awards, the Swedish Academy, invites nomination for awards sending out thousands of requests to a broad range of representative organisations and individuals. Nominations received – there are usually up to 250 – 300 received – go through a rigorous shortlisting process, which over months narrows the shortlist to five. The shortlisted works are read and reviewed by the selection committee (in 2019, exclusively Swedish and white, mostly but not exclusively older than 60) over six months after which members of the academy vote. The candidate with more than half of the total votes is named the Nobel Laureate for Literature.
This process is to identify the very best writers – novelists and poets across an international publishing arena. It is reasonable to reflect on the magnitude of such a task and what the prize award, actually means. How many books are read by each panel member, for example?
How do we know these are in any way a representative sample of the best-published literature available and even then, representative of what? How is the international aspect of nomination and judging managed? Presumably not all panel members have more than one, two or three languages so translation and the essence of a writers work – particularly poetry one imagines – being ‘lost in translation’ must factor into the process? Would a panel made up of people from African or Asian nations, even if using the same published selection procedure, come to similar conclusions? A headcount shows that Nobel Laureates in literature come predominantly from Europe and the US, and the overwhelming majority wrote in English. Only one woman of colour, Toni Morrison, has been awarded the prize.
It is hard to understand what the awards process means. Certainly, it highlights literature with a focus on particular authors. There is not a writer who earns a living through the written word anywhere in the world who would turn their nose up at the significant prize money which accompanies the medal and honour. It would seem that a win is more than likely to lead to more book sales. It needs no saying that the award has cachet and it must be wonderful and a joyful privilege to become a laureate but as a measure of literature(s) of worth, it can only ever be something of a blunt instrument.