Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


Why are literary awards given? The obvious answer is that they recognize “excellence” (yeech!! that word has been so over-used by boosters!). They inspire writers to strive for the best. They are a way of saying that a society values literature and they are a sign of that society’s cultural maturity.

A counter-argument says that literary awards are a device whereby booksellers and publishers put authors in competition which one another, in order to garner publicity and boost sales.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate between these two views. They both have their points. Writers who have been scorned one year will doubtless adopt the negative view –a fact which won’t stop them from turning up happily the next year to accept an award, should one be offered to them. But I do know that there will, every year, be controversies about why certain prizes have been awarded and whether the most deserving contender won.

 Naturally this raises another question.

How are literary awards given?

There is no universal literary criterion of literary merit. Awarding literary prizes cannot be like awarding sports prizes where (once drugs-tests are factored in) it’s plain for all to see who has won the race or the match. We always have to ask who the judges for literary awards are; what their criteria are; how much they have been swayed by ideas of what is currently fashionable or critically acceptable; whether they have agendas (political, social, philosophical) that have little to do with literary merit; and so on.

I’m not being cynical in raising these matters. I’ve known a few literary judges in my time, and on the whole they have struck me as conscientious and decent people, whose job involves a formidable amount of reading and many discussions to establish some sort of consensus in the award.

But I am establishing the simple fact that no literary award is infallible.

This is true of all arts awards, and long may it be so. Where would arts columnists and commentators get half their yearly material if it wasn’t for the fun of pointing out, at length, how wrong the judges got it? How many workplace conversations would be stopped dead if there wasn’t the chance to point out that the year’s Academy Award-winning movie was actually a turkey?

The Achilles Heel of all awards is how they are seen after a few years have gone by. The book that wins this year’s prize may be the one that everybody has forgotten in twenty years time, when the rank outsider is still remembered.

This might simply be an elaborate way of stating one of my favourite aphorisms, that Time is the Ultimate Literary Critic. If there is such a thing as a “canon” of literature, it consists of the things that survive and still speak to us when other things have become mere period pieces. The forgotten ones include many that were much lauded and much awarded in their day.

One way of establishing the temporal fallibility of literary awards is to look at how they have functioned over the long stretch. I’m sure I could play this game with any of the big literary awards – the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer, the Booker or whatever. But let’s go to the best known, and therefore the most persistently contentious.

In the 110 years since it was instituted in 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has always caused raised eyebrows and voices among critics, bibliophiles and the literate in general. It is meant to recognize a whole literary career, not just a single work, and it is meant to reward an “idealistic” view of life, a term that causes problems and can be tortured a thousand ways.

It began with a whimper and took some time to establish its credibility.

The first winner, in 1901, was the French essayist Sully Prudhomme. He wasn’t the brightest star in France’s – or any other country’s – literary firmament, and if he is remembered now it is simply because he won the first Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the early winners was the distinguished German historian Mommsen, but it was really only in 1905 that there was the first writer anybody is likely to remember today (the Pole Henryk Sienkiewicz for his Hollywood-ish novel Quo Vadis?). It was only in 1907 that the award first went to a genuine international literary superstar (Rudyard Kipling).

One would have to be very arrogant – or knowledgeable beyond belief – to presume to judge the worth of all Nobel laureates for literature.

I am neither that arrogant nor that knowledgeable.

 What I do know is that in the first half of the 20th. century, the award featured many fairly obscure Scandinavian writers who were little known beyond their homeland. This is not a blanket judgement on all Scandinavian laureates. A great international reading public really did know – and still knows -  the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof (laureate 1909) and the Norwegian novelist Sigrid Unset (laureate 1928). But there were others who would scarcely be read outside Stockholm or Oslo.

What I also know is that a formidable list of eligible literary greats did not receive the award, while some literary nonentities did. I still have a sneaking liking for the satirist Sinclair Lewis, the first American laureate (1930), but I can’t deny that his work is very dated and many better American writers missed out. As for the American Pearl Buck (laureate 1938), her books were bestseller pap of little enduring value.

Meanwhile, since 1901, the Swedish Academy had passed over such eligible literary giants as Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Henryk Ibsen and Henry James. Later they were to pass over the great Karel Capek (a more profound satirist than Sinclair Lewis) and W.H.Auden. They also gave some fairly dodgy prizes. Winston Churchill (laureate 1953) deserved a prize for something, but it wasn’t for literature. He was obviously respected throughout postwar Europe for having stood up to Hitler, but it was an open secret that his longer books were less his own work than the work of hired research-collaborators, upon whose efforts he put the finishing stylistic flourishes.

In the later 20th century there was a long-running controversy about the failure of England’s most recognized novelist, Graham Greene, to get the nod from Stockholm. All manner of theories were posited for this failure, including the suggestion that the Swedish academy was prejudiced against Greene’s Catholicism

Naturally, after having noted these odd decisions, one would also have to admit that the full list of Nobel laureates in literature includes many great names whose place few would dispute. They range from Thomas Mann to Albert Camus, from W.B.Yeats to T.S.Eliot, from Francois Mauriac to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from Luigi Pirandello to William Golding. I can also remember how pleased I was on a couple of occasions when the prize was taken by somebody whose works I had long admired – Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and Seamus Heaney in 1995. It was as if the committee was vindicating my taste.

Yet the record of the Nobel literary prizes still indicates that even the world’s best-known literary award has frequently got it dead wrong.

Recently, as it has become such an international matter, there has been the additional criticism that in 110 years, the award has only five times gone to people who write in languages other than European ones – although it has sometimes gone to non-Europeans who write in European languages, like the English-writing Nigerian Wole Soyinka (laureate 1986).

This points to something about our perception of Nobel literary prizes.

Perhaps we expect too much of them.

After all, no one committee can be expected to know what literary excellence is in every language. And since when was the Swedish academy the most acute or perceptive of the world’s literary connoisseurs?

In the end, Nobel prizes for literature are the perishable opinions of one small group of judges.

Seen from that perspective, perhaps we should be impressed at how often their judgement has been right rather than distressed at how often it has been wrong.

But it doesn’t negate the fact that literary merit is only part of the picture when a work does or does not win a prize.

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