In Sweden, the Nobel Prize ceremonies are huge, like the Academy Awards for smart people. The banquet at Stockholm’s city hall is “one of the most-watched television programs in Sweden,” writes a columnist for Svenska Dagbladet, the daily newspaper that on Tuesday gave blanket coverage to the clothes, the menu, the after-party and the four naked people who rushed the doors to protest the continued imprisonment in China of dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. Live bloggers recorded the fact that the British-Israeli chemistry laureate Michael Levitt gave his acceptance speech in Swedish, and that, when Alice Munro’s daughter Jenny dropped her purse on the steps of the banquet hall, gallant Prince Carl Philip quickly scooped it up for her.
Close attention to the event over the past century has been matched, on the literary side, by intense scrutiny not just of the winners, but of exactly what Alfred Nobel had in mind. “The history of the Literature Prize appears as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will,” writes Swedish literary historian Kjell Espmark on the Nobel website. The literary award has stood for different things at different times, depending on who was in charge and who won it.
In his will, Nobel calls for a prize for “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” and that, like the other prizes, the winner should be someone “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” He threw this task to “the Academy in Stockholm,” by which everyone assumed he meant the Swedish Academy, a sleepy institution set up in 1786 by King Gustav III to protect “the purity, vigour and majesty” of the Swedish language. This parochial panel of 18 writers, linguists and other academics had no obvious credentials for running a major international literary prize. “It was simply not fit for the task,” writes Espmark, an Academy member since 1981 and one of five on its current Nobel committee.
Some members wanted to reject the commission, but the then-permanent secretary Carl David af Wirsén shrewdly foresaw “the enormous power and prestige that the Nobel will bequeaths to the Eighteen” – a local term for the Academy. They were convinced not by what they could do for the prize, but by what it could do for them.
The Academy gave itself a (temporary) monopoly on nominations, ignored the “preceding year” part of Nobel’s direction, and decided that “ideal direction” meant literature of a romantic idealistic bent. That suited the Academy’s conservative mentality, and slammed the door on alleged pessimists, such as Leo Tolstoy, August Strindberg and Émile Zola. It became a cliché of prize citations for the first few decades to praise the “lofty idealism” of the winner’s prose, or to say that it captured “the spirit of a nation.” Gabriela Mistral’s citation in 1945 linked the two conceits into one, praising her for voicing “the idealist aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”
There has been plenty of retrospective grief about the victims of that policy, who included Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and especially about Strindberg, the native Swede who was banished so completely that he was never even nominated. To get the measure of that affront, you have to know that a candidate can be named multiple times, “until the nominee either wins the prize or dies or the sponsors give up,” as the Academy’s website says. Strindberg died in 1912, meaning he was snubbed a dozen times. The Danish novelist Johannes Vilhelm Jensen was nominated a record 18 times before he prevailed in 1944. Home field advantage may be gauged by the fact that 15 Scandinavians have won the prize; five of the seven Swedish winners were in the Academy at the time.
In the 1930s, the Academy reinterpreted Nobel’s “benefit of mankind” phrase to mean that winner’s work should be broadly accessible. That eliminated T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and let in Sinclair Lewis (1930) and Pearl Buck (1938). The same thinking may have helped John Steinbeck win in 1962, although papers released earlier this year show that the endorsement was tepid (the Academy keeps its deliberations secret for 50 years). Eugene O’Neill also got a rough ride from dissenting jurors, who complained that his work was “not finished” and that he had “no culture.” But his 1936 citation praised his “great poetic force.”
After the Second World War, the Academy swung around to the idea that an “ideal direction” could be ground-breaking. The apex of this “pioneers” period, as Espmark calls it, was the award to Samuel Beckett in 1969.
Through this whole period, the Academy was almost entirely male. It has only ever had seven women members in its 227-year existence, including the five who are in it now. “The female element has been limited,” says the Academy’s website. That may have been a factor in the small number of women who have won the literary Nobel – just 13 of 110 winners, including the four who claimed it in the past decade.
Politics burst upon the prize in a big way in 1958, when winner Boris Pasternak was bullied by the USSR government into declining such a “bourgeois” honour. The Soviets weren’t happy with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s win in 1970 either.
But no country has bent itself more out of shape over the literature prize than China, where in the past few decades, the award became a focus of a “near-pathological yearning for international prizes and ‘face,’” writes Julia Lovell in her 2006 book, The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature. National competitions, conferences and delegations to Stockholm were bitterly rewarded in 2000, when the first prize to a Chinese writer went to Gao Xingjian, who lived in France and was no friend of the Chinese regime. The naked protesters at this year’s award ceremony knew that Beijing would be watching.
The prize is now so international that people often ask – as Svenska Dagbladet readers did in a Q&A with Nobel literature committee chair Per Wästberg – whether the determining factor is literary quality or home address, and also how the Academy can possibly judge works it can often read only in translation. Neither worry seems to be an issue this year: Munro is said to have been a committee favourite, and not a compromise winner. But we’ll have to wait 50 years to know for sure.