Liam Fitt looks at the nature of controversy surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature.
To talk about the Nobel Prize for Literature is to talk about controversy. Since the award’s inception, it has never broken free of accusations of one form or another, denouncements and criticism, from intellectuals and outspoken artists alike. The latest controversy surrounding it has been in relation to the 2016 laureate, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
Though complex, to understand exactly why such an award has been steeped in a long history of critique, one must return to the words of its founding father, Alfred Nobel. His conception was for the prize to be awarded to any author who had produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’.
Superficially, this may sound fine, honourable even. Yet there are profound problems from which much of the award’s controversy stems: his language is vague, proposing some sort of murky conceptualisation of the function of literature, and, furthermore, has some specific teleological sense of direction; this, like the function of literature itself, he conspicuously avoids detailing.
All of this has consequences. Inevitably, it has been left up to academy members to interpret what he meant and thus who aught to receive the reward. This has led to the politicisation of the award, perhaps necessarily in part to fill the void of Mr. Nobel’s hollow dictates.
To talk of an ‘ideal’ (or ‘idealistic’, depending on the translation) ‘direction’ for Literature is to underline the fundamental ambiguity of having such a lofty, ambiguous, and ironically idealistic aim; to put it simply, no one could actually tell you what that ‘direction’ is or why it is ‘ideal’ and, hence, the whole concept is facile.
Moreover, because of this, the prize itself is innately facile in nature too. For it to somehow bestow any sense of ‘prestige’ is an illusion. Indeed, not only is this a demonstrable fact (as I have just shown), it is also of vital importance: for one to define literature as having a definite purpose, and following on from this, an ideal direction is to necessarily border on both the authoritarian and the dogmatic. For this reason, the Nobel is controversial, whether it be in criticism or in praise; for as soon as it is done so, one necessarily validates this underlying predicate of an ‘ideal direction’.
There is, however, always a marked difference between theoretical doctrine and practice: so long as the award is seen to be a recognition of an author’s work without being somehow progressive towards some ‘ideal’ end, but rather as expansive into the wholly unknown, then perhaps it can be supported. And yet, it is arguable, this has never been the case: looking back over the given justifications and the very writers chosen, there is an uneasy sense of some retro-active reshaping of the canon (and implicitly, ‘ideal direction’) of literature seemingly taking place.
Turning to Bob Dylan, the justification given by the panel for his receiving of the award was simply “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. A part of the problem is that although Dylan undeniably did so, so did many of his peers, and thus he should not necessarily be exalted for having done so above the important contributions made by others in their respective literary fields.
The fundamental problem is that the award by its nature can only be awarded to a single person each year. Rather than being pan-culturally inclusive it represents only certain literary figures and aspects of their cultures. To try and judge such diverse figures and cultures from across the globe against one another, especially on the terms left by Mr. Nobel, can clearly been seen as an impossible project with no hope of satisfying or even appeasing any critics.
Not only has this led to some controversial laureate choices, it has also, as in the Dylan case, prompted (when the award is taken seriously) a questioning of the intellectual integrity of the whole endeavour. Thus, the Nobel Prize for Literature is innately intertwined with controversy, and while the laureate himself may be revered, we may wonder who else might have been chosen, and whether or not that same reverence carries through to the award.
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