Nobel-Shaped Literature and the Politics of Prestige

Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature and many people – especially Canadians – are thrilled about what is widely portrayed as an achievement for Canada. I am too in my own way. Alice Munro is a favourite writer of mine and few books have moved me like Who Do You Think You Are? moved me when I first read it in my late teens. I think it is important, though, that we consider what the bestowal of the Nobel Prize has meant both culturally and politically.

Our excitement about the prize reflects its heightened power as an honour taken to be the greatest that a writer can achieve. The Nobel Prize is a prestige-granting institution – an institution that, in claiming to prize literary excellence, also shapes how we define literature to begin with.

Pascale Casanova and Rebecca Braun have remarked on the fact that, though the Nobel Prize presents itself as identifying a literature whose value is universal, it has most often celebrated European writers and writers schooled in European traditions. It has moreover come to privilege complexity and ambiguity as necessary signs of the sophistication of great art, while tending not to distinguish works for the social and political meanings that they may make available.

The CBC news announcement of Munro’s win claimed that the prize committee chose her work because of her mastery of the short story form. In pointing this out I don’t mean to imply that Munro’s work cannot be said to be politically progressive. For some readers, working with a particular sense of what constitutes progressive politics, it clearly is. What I am suggesting rather is that the terms of consecration that the Nobel committee deploys most often entail a vision of literary excellence as detached, neutral, ambiguous, complex and apolitical, and as first and foremost a matter of formal mastery. As Timothy Brennan has argued, this definition of literary art partakes of and supports liberal castigation of radical politics.

Pierre Bourdieu often claimed that bestowing a prestigious prize serves to celebrate and consecrate those who judge. The Nobel institution is a premier instance of this process. The awarding of the Nobel Prize consecrates Europe as the fully modern space from which literary excellence is adjudicated and claims to the status of literary art are evaluated. In the words of Horace Engdahl, the Swedish Academy spokesperson until 2009, “the Nobel Prize for Literature has from the very first been an expression of modernity. The preconditions for the award of the prize are the freedom of thought and the cosmopolitanism that are the progeny of the Enlightenment.” If one’s writing isn’t evidently an embodiment of these core features, there is no chance of winning a Nobel.

The fact that a Western institution has this power to decide if one’s work is sufficiently enlightened has been highly significant for writers in some non-Western literary communities. Julie Lovell has charted, for example, the Chinese obsession with winning the Nobel, reading this fixation as a product of the “mix of admiration, resentment, and anxiety that intellectuals and writers have long felt toward Western values as they struggled to shape a modern Chinese identity.”

I’m not suggesting that the prize would be improved by awarding a greater variety of types of writing or a more culturally diverse group of authors. Literary prizes are honours bestowed by a small group of people endowed with inordinate power, and they are by their nature exclusionary. What I am claiming is that it is our responsibility to consider what the prize has been in practice: how inclusion is explained, how certain aspects of a career are highlighted as prize-worthy, and how justifications for inclusion help to create purportedly universal models of what the best writers should endeavour to achieve.