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What Happened to the Nobel Prize in Literature?

The prize has undergone a distinct change in recent years, opting for best-selling writers and rock stars.

Ben Stansall/Getty Images

The standard joke about the Nobel Prize in Literature is that it’s a prize for Estonian poets. There’s an insecurity underlying this joke—no one likes an annual reminder that they’re not as well-read as they think they are. But it also points to the Nobel’s value. Americans are notoriously unworldly in their reading habits and the Nobel, when awarded to writers like Tomas Tranströmer or Mo Yan, to use two recent examples, opens up valuable new horizons. This has led to the perception that the Nobel is the vegetable of literary prizes: not very fun, but ultimately good for us.

But something funny has happened in Stockholm over the last three years, a period that has coincided with the Swedish academic Sara Danius becoming chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, replacing Peter Englund. The Nobel has become, well, fun. It opened up the definition of literature to include 2015 laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories and 2016 laureate Bob Dylan’s off-kilter folk songs. Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 laureate, would appear to be a far more conventional choice—his prevailing theme is memory and he has returned on multiple occasions to World War II, a combination that has appeared in the work of several Nobel laureates, most recently Patrick Modiano.

But unlike Modiano or Tranströmer, Ishiguro is a global superstar on a level just below that of perennial Nobel bridesmaid Haruki Murakami, having written two hugely successful novels that were adapted into Academy Award–nominated films. Notably, he also flew beneath the Nobel Prize speculation radar. In keeping with the prizes awarded under Danius, Ishiguro is both a deserving laureate and an unconventional one. This isn’t your father’s Nobel Prize.

The times, to quote a recent laureate, are-a-changing and every major literary prize has struggled to keep up. The Man Booker Prize has become bloated and corporate, shedding its old identity as a largely British award in favor of one that is sleek and international. Over the last two years, the National Book Awards have consciously taken on greater social and political importance, pushing a notoriously white and male industry in new directions. There is enormous pressure to keep prizes contemporary and to make sure that they make a splash, year after year.

Given its pedigree, the Nobel Prize doesn’t have to keep sponsors happy, which means it doesn’t necessarily face this kind of pressure. And yet it’s also shifted its identify over the last three years, embracing a kind of populism. Obscurity is no longer a virtue, and all literary forms are welcome. But that change has also come at a cost. Despite being dismayingly Eurocentric—a black African writer has not won since 1986, for instance—the Nobel was the premier way for difficult and strange writing of high quality to get a wider audience. With the Nobel edging toward the likes of Dylan and Ishiguro, this is a loss for global literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature has never had a fixed identity in its century-plus existence. It was conceived as a lifetime achievement award before the advent of lifetime achievement awards, and put writers on the same level as those who were forging world peace and expanding our knowledge of the physical universe. It also has a humanitarian component: Its founding language says winners must have “conferred the greatest good upon mankind.”

Within these broad parameters, it has never been entirely settled what the Nobel Prize in Literature should be. It has been given to canonical writers (William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison), obscurities (Dario Fo), and oddities (Winston Churchill, who won for his historical writing and speeches). The prize has traditionally been awarded to writers of fiction or poetry, but it has been granted to nonfiction writers as well. Even the humanitarian clause is usually ignored, though the Nobel Prize has a long-standing reputation for making political statements, such as when Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was given the prize in 2006 after he was prosecuted by the Turkish state.

“There is the view that the Nobel literature prize often goes to someone whose political stance is found to be sympathetic at a given moment,” said Alan Jenkins, deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement, shortly after playwright Harold Pinter won the award in 2005. The rumor at the time was that Pinter was being acknowledged for his vocal criticism of the Iraq War. Jorge Luis Borges, meanwhile, was denied the Nobel Prize because of his support of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

If you squint hard enough, you could see a political motivation underlying each of the last three Nobel winners. The Belarusan Svetalana Alexievich has written about the destructive legacy of the Soviet Union and has been a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin. Bob Dylan is a reluctant civil rights icon, but a civil rights icon nevertheless; he won a month before Donald Trump was elected president. Ishiguro is a British writer of Japanese descent writing in post-Brexit Britain; on Thursday, The Economist strained to make the case that his work also had a certain resonance in this post-truth age.

But the more convincing theory is that, over the last three years, the Nobel Committee for Literature has decided to expand the scope of a prize that had gained a reputation for trawling the hidden corners of Europe for under-read gems. It has also expanded its definition of literature to include Alexievich’s transcription of real-life testimonies and Dylan songs like “Visions of Johanna.”

The Nobel is also casting off its elitist reputation. After the Italian comic writer Dario Fo won, members of the Committee told Fo’s publisher that awarding the prize to frontrunners Salman Rushdie or Arthur Miller would have been “too predictable, too popular.” Those days seem to be behind the Nobel, at least for now. (Pity Philip Roth, who retired before the Nobel Committee could come around to popular writers like Philip Roth.)

This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Nobel’s stuffiness, and its seeming glee in punishing popularity, have never been particularly attractive qualities, especially when it stiffed deserving writers. This haughtiness was also evident in the Nobel’s narrow geographic outlook, which slighted non-European writers.

And yet, this myopic, often pretentious outlook was essential to the Nobel Prize’s identity. As the most important and powerful literary prize in the world, it has tremendous cultural influence and can turn relative nobodies like Tranströmer and Herta Müller and Imre Kertész into global names. It remains the most powerful tool in upsetting the hegemony of corporate publishing, which has created a homogenous book culture driven by sales and popularity.

It’s heartening to see a 116-year-old prize reinvent itself. This is a good development if kept in moderation—which is to say that if the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to Lars von Trier or Kraftwerk, then we might be in trouble. The danger is that the Nobel will lose its most important function, which is to dispassionately select the best writers from across the globe.