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Business News/ Specials / The Nobel prize in literature is prestigious, lucrative and bonkers
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Lifting the veil on how literature’s most coveted award is judged reveals its arbitrariness

Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse after the Swedish Academy awarded him the 2023 Nobel literature prize (Photo: AFP)Premium
Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse after the Swedish Academy awarded him the 2023 Nobel literature prize (Photo: AFP)

The announcement of the winner of the Nobel prize in literature usually prompts one of three reactions. The first is “Who?"; the second is “Why?"; the third—by far the rarest—is “Hurrah!" This year, reactions were firmly in the first two camps. On October 5th Jon Fosse, a Norwegian, was awarded the world’s most prestigious writing prize. Many literary buffs had never heard of him. Mr Fosse writes mainly in Nynorsk, a form of Norwegian which is, even among the country’s writers, a minority pursuit. His best-known (but still little-known) work is a trilogy called “Septology", which touts itself as a “radically other reading experience".

In some ways awarding this prize is a simple process. As is customary, Mr Fosse was telephoned to hear a Scandinavian voice telling him he had won the coveted prize, which comes with SKr11m (around $1m). Like many Nobel winners, he may then have opened the champagne. Or perhaps, as Doris Lessing did, he may have sighed and said: “Oh, Christ."

In almost every other way the prize is a nightmare of complexity. Judging anything, even a 100-metre race, can be hard. Judging literature—a symphony, not a sprint—is much harder. Whatever the literary prize, from the Nobel (awarded for an author’s oeuvre) to the Booker (for their most recent book), there will be those who critique the judges’ decisions. Particularly when they do not win. “Posh bingo" is how Julian Barnes, an author, once described the Booker prize (which he won only on his fourth nomination).

Prize judges can seem less like they are making measured, critical decisions than picking names out of a hat. As Anders Olsson, the current chair of the committee, observes: “We always get criticism." In its very first year, the Nobel committee caused outrage when it failed to give the accolade to Leo Tolstoy and offered it to Sully Prudhomme, a French poet, instead—a name as underwhelming then as it is now. Many fantastic writers were not even nominated: Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf among them.

The Nobel’s judging criteria are at best esoteric and at worst wholly opaque. Alfred Nobel—a man who was better at chemistry than writing—stated in his will that a prize in his name should be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". Whatever that means.

The field of rivals for the literary prize is vast. Authors cannot nominate themselves. Instead judges choose from all living writers, writing in every language in the world (of which there are 7,000). It is, acknowledges Mr Olsson, “an immense" task. And, naturally, a nonsense one. The six members of the judging committee are not considering the oeuvre of every Irish author writing in Gaelic or every Papua New Guinean one writing in Hiri Motu.

Judges are, however, considering quite a lot of them. Each year, the committee sends around 4,000 invitations to literary organisations across the world requesting nominations by February. These nominations become a longlist of 200 authors who are whittled down to a shortlist of 20 by April. By May, they have produced a yet shorter list of five candidates (which, like all the other lists, is embargoed for 50 years). Then the judging and the reading begin in earnest. It is as fair as it can be, which is to say, extremely unfair.

Choosing between books is “very, very hard", says Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum and the chair of the Booker prize committee in 2022. Judges must adjudicate between a book on the Sri Lankan civil war here and the inward musings of a middle-class American woman there. In other words, they are picking between literary “apples and oranges". They must also agree. It is “a bit like a criminal jury", says Mr MacGregor. The atmosphere on prizes can be as fun as that makes it sound. Judging the Booker prize led Joanna Lumley, a British actress, to conclude that the “so-called bitchy world of acting" was a “tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing".

Judging books presents other difficulties, too. The longlists for modern prizes are just that: long. Booker judges must wade through around 170 books in seven months; Nobel judges through the output of 200 authors in just two. “I don’t believe they can," says Michael Wood, who chaired a different contest, the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.

Each judge has her own method; some read 30-40 pages of each. Others scan them to see if they are a contender. Happily for judges (if not readers), all too often the answer is a flat no. The author Malcolm Muggeridge withdrew from judging the Booker because he was “nauseated and appalled" by the entries. Mr MacGregor on several occasions found himself wondering, “How could anybody have thought this was worth publishing?"

Judging the Nobel has other challenges. It considers works in translation, but even “Je ne sais quoi" loses a certain je ne sais quoi when it is in English. The prize purports to be global but has tended to be Eurocentric: of the 120 winners to date, around 100 have come from Europe or America. This is a bias of which the Academy is acutely—and, you sense, uncomfortably—aware.

The difficulties with the prize were, in fact, clear to the Swedish Academy from the beginning. When offered the donation from Nobel, the Academy had “some hesitations" about accepting it, according to Mr Olsson. Given the criticism that the Academy has sometimes faced, perhaps it wishes it had not. Naturally, all Nobel prizes have had controversies—but few as ferocious as those raised by the literary one.

Not everyone is cross. As Mr Barnes mused, writers see prizes as a lottery—until, that is, they win. Then they realise that those cursed prize judges are, in fact, “the wisest heads in literary Christendom".

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© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 06 Dec 2023, 12:57 PM IST
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