Nobel Prize in Literature

From Outlook, The Washington Post, April 19, 2009.
By Marie Arana.

It took more than a century to get here, but last year finally made it obvious: It’s time to throw out the Nobel Prize in literature.

In October, Horace Engdahl, a permanent member of the Swedish Academy, declared that Americans were “too insular” to participate in the “big dialogue” of world literature. “That ignorance is restraining,” he sniffed.

For years, there’d been rumors that the Swedes saw America as a vast wilderness of provincialism, but with that pronouncement, the Academy’s own narrow-mindedness came into display. The prejudices that have long governed the Nobel’s deliberations are now as open and public as a festering sore.

I’m not proposing to eliminate the prize because one official branded Americans lumbering ignoramuses. I’m doing it because, since Alfred Nobel, the chemist who invented dynamite, founded his famous prize, the Nobel has shown a breathtaking proclivity for exalting minor literary talent. From first to last — from the forgettable Sully Prudhomme (1901) to the erratic and treacly J.M.G. Le Clézio (2008) — the choices have shown a lack of critical judgment and a surfeit of political zeal.

How could judges who profess to know literature shun Tolstoy, James Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Nabokov or Henry James? If the goal, as the original mandate proclaimed, was to identify those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” why extol the muddled pornography of Elfriede Jelinek? Or the unremarkable output of Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, former judges themselves?

Often, the Academy lionizes those in line with its own left-wing beliefs: Sinclair Lewis, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, Pablo Neruda or Jean-Paul Sartre. The native-born Americans who have wrested the laurels make for a motley crew: the merely average and flagrantly anti-capitalist John Steinbeck, for instance, and the mediocre but multiculturally earnest Pearl S. Buck.

After World War II, the judges did choose a few giants: Herman Hesse, Andre Gide, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. But what of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene or Jorge Luis Borges? Or E.M. Forster, Mikhail Bulgakov and Willa Cather? By my count, 15 of the 105 laureates deserved the prize. That’s hardly an efficient way to recognize excellence. As George Bernard Shaw, himself a laureate, once said: Only a dynamiter or a fiend could have invented it.

Marie Arana, the former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, is the author of “Lima Nights.”