The Nobel Prize for Literature is not always for the best writer in the world

Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Mircea Cartarescu, Annie Arnaux, Milan Kundera, Edna O’Brien. They are some of the names that resonate year after year in the pools to win the Nobel Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of literature, one of the five prizes specified in the will of the Swedish philanthropist and chemist Alfred Nobel. The indications to award this award are contained in a short and ambiguous sentence, which leads us to question whether the indications written by the philanthropist more than a century ago are still valid.

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In the will signed in November 1895, Alfred Nobel placed his entire fortune in a fund distributed in a series of awards that each year should reward those who during the preceding year had made “the greatest benefit to humanity.” Although over time categories have been added and modified, initially there were only five: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. In the field of literature, Nobel wrote the wish to reward whoever had produced the “most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency within the field of literature”, a phrase that is also often translated as “who would have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work, in the ideal direction “. What did Alfred Nobel mean by this “idealistic tendency” or “ideal direction”?

An ideal of literature close to the SDGs

For Pablo Valdivia, Professor of European Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen and one of the experts who has been required on numerous occasions by the Swedish Academy to propose nominations, it is important to contextualize Nobel’s words with the humanistic character of some scientists from the 19th century, who understood that science and letters should pursue an ideal in absolute terms and be part of great narratives such as improving people’s lives or achieving world peace. “If we try to transfer to the present what Nobel said about reaching an ideal, it would be something equivalent to the Sustainable Development Goals, something like works close to those goals should be awarded,” says Valdivia. “The reality is that literature does not have to be aligned with those moral principles of fraternity, we do not have to agree with the morality of a literary text that we consider outstanding. Furthermore, we must always bear in mind that the concept of Literature that was had in the time of Nobel is very different from what we have today. ”

Literature serves that which observes the world and man from an unexpected and demanding angle. And the truth is that the Nobel is a prize that risks and is often right

Gonzalo Torné

Currently, there are a number of elements that intervene in the selection process and that amplify the initial intentions of Alfred Nobel. Valdivia considers very relevant “the question of the advertising makeup of the Nobel laureates themselves, the question of the market and the political question, which in my opinion tend to take precedence over literary quality”. For this reason, for this professor there are “extraordinary authors who will never be awarded the Nobel”. One of the cases that has led the most to speculation is that of Jorge Luis Borges: for many years, the decision not to reward the Argentine writer seemed to be related to his conservative position, away from the committed literature of the time, and his supposed rapprochement to the dictatorships of Videla and Pinochet, as they have confirmed scholars like Arthur Lundkist. However, the discussion about literary quality also came into play: as revealed in 2018 by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet When declassifying an Academy report made at the stage in which Borges was nominated several times, the chairman of the award committee, Anders Osterling, rejected Borges because he was “too exclusive or artificial in his ingenious miniature art.”

We are looking for literature that makes us feel better

Although experts such as Valdivia downplay Nobel’s words and ask to place them in a specific historical and philosophical context, there are those who believe that the phrase written by the Swedish chemist in 1895 is still valid in the awards: “his language is vague and opaque in regarding the function of literature “, criticized Liam Fitt in a widely circulated column published in 2016 on PI Media, magazine of University College London. “All of this has consequences. Inevitably, the interpretation of what he wanted to say and, therefore, from whom should receive the reward, has been left in the hands of the members of the Academy. This has led to the politicization of the award, perhaps necessarily in Part to fill the void of Nobel’s empty dictates, for no one could really say what that ‘direction’ is or why it is ‘ideal’.

We can also contemplate Nobel’s words from a more luminous prism, as the novelist Gonzalo Torné does: “I suppose that Nobel was referring to a literature that helps us to be better or to feel better, which potentially means many things. Today I suppose that we run the risk of reviving that discussion of whether literature is useful for something and whether it helps to transform the world, “he explains to “The temptation is to say no to both, but the truth is that yes, to both, yes, it serves and transforms; it serves to understand and raise awareness; and it transforms the personal world, which in some way affects friends and acquaintances . But not all, but some. Commercial literature, lazy literature, neither servile nor helpful literature will do. I suppose that one that observes the world and man from an unexpected and demanding angle is useful. And the truth is that the Nobel is a prize that risks and is often right. Come on, the opposite of our routine and insipid Critics Prize “, he adds.


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