Why are postmodern writers not winning the Nobel Prize in literature?

While the Swedish academy takes a strict stance against sexual misconduct, it should also review its own choice of winners.

 |  3-minute read |   17-05-2018
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The Nobel Prize in Literature for the year 2018 has been cancelled by the Swedish Academy amid a sexual scandal. The Academy insisted that the prize should be cancelled to show respect towards previous and future Nobel Laureates. After the #MeToo campaign and Kevin Spacey being replaced by Ridley Scott in his film All the Money in the World, this is the latest stand against sexual misconduct. While the stand itself can be debated, it is important to understand how the value of the Nobel Prize in Literature is gradually diminishing.

An analysis of the last few years’ Nobel Prize winners will highlight how the Academy is deliberately overlooking postmodern authors. In the last few years, except Kazuo Ishiguro and Mario Vargos Llosa, most of the other winning authors did not really merit the prize. For instance, JMG Le Clezio won the prize in 2008. His major contributions were in the fields of poetry, children’s books and travelogues. Similarly, Herta Muller (2009) and Tomas Transtormer (2010) also won the prizes for their writings in poetry. Alice Munro and Mo Yan won as short story writers. Jean Patrick Modiano (2014) and Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich (2015) won the prize for holocaust literature and investigative journalism respectively. Finally, Bob Dylan (2016) won the prize "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". A closer analysis of all these authors suggests that they have contributed to the non-fiction or storytelling aspect of literature.

However, they have not added to their works to increase the scope of literature as a discipline.


ishiguro_051718052124.jpgIn the last few years, except those like Kazuo Ishiguro, most of the other winning authors — including Bob Dylan — did not really merit the prize. Photo: Reuters

Credit must be given to these authors for their individual work; nonetheless, this also indicates the choice of the Academy. There is a deliberate attempt to ignore authors who write contemporary fiction. Authors such as John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami, Ian Mcewan and many others have never been considered by the Academy. This particular choice by the Academy begs the question: Why are authors of contemporary literary fiction being ignored?

One of the major reasons is that there are very few readers of contemporary literary fiction. Mostly, there is a preference to read either history or biography, or non-fiction. Some in academia read poetry. Majority of people these days read for information and not for intellectual elevation. Given the readership choices, the Academy also chooses its winners accordingly. In fact, this is a recent trend which has emerged in the last decade.

nobell_051718052639.jpgUnless the Academy reviews its own choices, after a few years, the Nobel Prize in literature will cease to matter. Photo: University of Washington.

Previously, all the major writers of the world who contributed to contemporary literary fiction, such as William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), Albert Camus (1957), John Steinbeck (1962), Jean Paul Sartre (1964), Saul Bellow (1976), Jose Saramago (1998), Gunter Grass (1999), Orhan Pamuk (2006) have won the prize.

Their books have received cult status and they continue to enjoy constant readership.

In short, it could be said that in recent times, the Swedish Academy has deliberately not conferred the prize to postmodern writers. They are progressive and their books need to find a larger audience. The Nobel Committee for the Literature Prize should understand that it plays a significant role in increasing readership. Hence, it should honour modern writers who link fiction with social problems and expand the scope of literature consistently. In fact, by ignoring modern writers, the Academy is manifesting its literary prejudices.

Thus, in the backdrop of the scandal, it could be suggested that while the Academy is taking a strict stance against sexual misconduct, it should also review its own choice of winners. The Academy should understand that winners of the prize come to the limelight and a winner of literary fiction may increase the readership of this genre. Unless the Academy reviews its own choices, after a few years, the Nobel Prize in literature will cease to matter.

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Jagriti Gangopadhyay Jagriti Gangopadhyay

Post-Doctoral Fellow and Faculty at Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities.

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