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The Slippery Politics of the Nobel Prize in Literature

People want the most prestigious award for literature to make a political statement. It complies only in unpredictable and inscrutable ways.

Who will win this year’s Nobel Prize in literature? And what—beyond literary excellence—does the award stand for? On episode 54 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with Alex Shephard, a staff writer at The New Republic and an inveterate Nobel watcher, about the enigmatic politics of the oldest and most distinguished literary prize in the world. Will the Nobel Committee salute freedom of speech by honoring Salman Rushdie, who was brutally attacked onstage in August? Will it recognize the French memoirist Annie Ernaux, who has written movingly about illegal abortion? How apparent have the Nobel’s politics been over the years—and who definitely won’t win?

Kazuo Ishiguro [news clip]: I first heard about the Nobel Prize when I was a small child in Japan ...

Laura Marsh: The Nobel Prize in literature is the most exhaustively discussed, dissected, and argued over literary prize in the world. Kazuo Ishiguro won it in 2017.

Ishiguro [news clip] … as probably, yes, the greatest prize a person can win in the world. 

Laura: Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about the honor. Doris Lessing won in 2007.

Doris Lessing [news clip]: I’ve won all the prizes in Europe.... Every bloody one. So I’m delighted to win them. It’s a whole lot, OK?

 Laura: For her, the prize was a fuss over nothing.

Alex Pareene: Every year the Nobel Prize in literature attracts speculation that more closely resembles horse race political commentary.

Laura: Journalists pontificate about who has the best chance of winning. Bookies even offer odds on particular authors.

Alex: This year, several commentators have argued that the prize should be awarded to Salman Rushdie, who has lived under a fatwa since 1989 and who was stabbed at a literary festival in August.

Laura: People want the Nobel Prize to make a political statement, in this case in support of free speech.

Alex: And the prize does have political implications. What does it mean, for instance, to award it to a dissident writer?

Laura: Or to a highly controversial writer like Peter Handke, who won in 2019?

Alex: The politics of the prize are slippery and unpredictable.

Laura: Today on the show, we’re talking with a fanatical Nobel watcher, TNR staff writer Alex Shephard, about what the prize means and who won’t win this year. I’m Laura Marsh.

Alex: And I’m Alex Pareene.

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.

Laura: There’s a certain kind of person who gets obsessed with the Nobel Prize, and Alex Shephard, a staff writer at The New Republic, who’s been a guest on the show before, is one of them. Alex has a special ritual that he does every year as the date of the prize approaches. Alex, tell us about your process. What do you do to prepare for the Nobel?

Alex Shephard: Yeah, so every year people bet on the Nobel Prize in literature, and Ladbrokes, which is this kind of august British gambling institution, makes odds for who they think will win the prize. And I sort of handicap these odds. So I go through, there’s usually about 50 names, although I add usually 20 or 25 names myself. Sometimes it’s just people that I like; sometimes it’s people that I want to make fun of, and I kind of rerank them based on if I think these people actually have a chance of winning the Nobel Prize. And historically speaking, I’ve been very very bad at predicting the outcome.

Laura: So this is a list of writers from all over the world, some of the most famous writers in the world. Some you also may not have necessarily heard of if you’re [an] English-speaking reader and you’re trying to categorize them according to how likely they are to be in with a chance of winning this prize.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, so it’s a mix of a lot of people that you’re quite familiar with or most people are probably quite familiar with: Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Michel Houellebecq, Karl Ove Knausgård, and then sort of smattering of names that might be less familiar, particularly to American readers: people like Pierre Michon, Mircea Cărtărescu, who’s somebody who I think has just started appearing on these lists because I put him on my stupid list of predictions. But one of the fun things about Nobel Prize speculating is that it is this kind of bizarre and slightly funhouse mirrory survey of global literature.

Laura: Right, you’re kind of like taking the horse race approach and applying it straight to a list of living writers.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, and I think one of the things that I like about it is that it’s inherently pretty silly. These are extremely serious people, and they’re being treated with almost complete disrespect in the process of, just like, idiots like me.… It’s like throwing pennies at the Titanic or something; people just betting on whether or not they will win what has been the most prestigious and important global arts award since its inception.

Alex Pareene: So how’s your, how’s your record, Alex? You’ve been doing this for a few years.

Alex Shephard: Well it sort of depends on how you count. I think I’ve gotten it sort of right twice. So I’ve listed two of the people who won, as I thought of them as favorites to win. So there’s Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish novelist of slightly magical realist fiction and Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian oral historian. I got both of those. I’m cheating here because I didn’t say these two people are going to win, I merely said I think that they could win.

Laura: There were many other names in that bucket, right.

Alex Shephard: I believe that there are at least six other names. I also usually have a list that’s like 40 names at the end, that’s like who I think could win, and they’re just kind of random people. None of those people have ever won, by the way. So there are two laureates who won that I didn’t even list, and again, I usually list I think between 75 and 100 names.

Laura: Mm-hmm.

Alex Shephard: Those are Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the most famous novelists on the planet, and Abdulrazak Gurnah who is, charitably, not one of the most famous novelists on the planet. I think no one had heard of him before he won last year. So Gurnah I can be forgiven for; Ishiguro is kind of a bad miss. But nobody was betting on him, so I wasn’t alone. And then the worst one was that for two years, 2015 and 2016, the first two years I did it, I explicitly said that Bob Dylan not only would not win the prize but that I would eat my vinyl record of Blood on the Tracks if he did win it, and he won in 2016.

Laura: Why do people care about the prize so much? Like you mentioned, it’s very prestigious, it’s very august. It’s just a prize, and there are lots of other prizes. Why is this one so important?

Alex Shephard: It’s sort of like the first prize. I mean obviously people have been winning literary prizes forever, like if you were living in Athens in 2000 B.C. and you wrote a poem about Zeus being horny or something, you probably got a laurel or whatever. But the modern prize doesn’t really start until 1901, when Alfred Nobel uses his dynamite money to start the Nobel Prize in literature, and I think this was part of this larger vogue at the time. It’s like what eventually leads to the creation of the United Nations, even of trying to find some global governance system. For this prize, it was specifically the first prize to sort of look at the entire swath of global literature, and it oddly presages a lot of domestic prizes. So like the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, it starts in America in 1918 as a reaction to the Nobel Prize. The National Book Award starts as a reaction to the Pulitzer failing to award William Faulkner before the Nobel, which is seen as this great national embarrassment.

Laura: So part of it is just the longer a prize has been given out, the more prestige accrues to it, because you can point to it and say, “Well, this is the prize that W.B. Yeats has won, and T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner,” and you can list all this stuff, but is there also a more immediate economic benefit attached to this prize? Like there’s a lot of prize money, but also, if you have a little display of your books at the front of Barnes and Noble and it says, “Winner of whatever year Nobel Prize,” I would imagine that can have a real influence on sales.

Alex Shephard: Yes and no. I haven’t looked at Gurnah’s sales numbers, but a lot of the recent laureates who aren’t bigger names have not seen those kind of jumps. So you didn’t really see this with Gurnah. Gurnah was not a name—Abdulrazak Gurnah is most famous as a literary critic.

Laura: Well, it was also hard for him to make that jump in sales because when he won the prize, almost none of his books were in print in the U.S. So you couldn’t have that effect of someone seeing the news, hearing about Abdulrazak Gurnah, and saying, “Oh, I could buy this for my daughter who likes reading,” which is the sales mechanism that these prizes tend to generate. If your books just aren’t out there, then you can’t benefit from that effect.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, I think what they do create, though, is this kind of canonization effect. So whether that happens with Gurnah is yet to be seen. There are other recent laureates, like JMG Le Clézio or even Mo Yan, that Chinese satirical novelist, who maybe haven’t made that jump, but Patrick Modiano, whose books were circulating but they weren’t particularly well known, he gets basically a big New York Review of Books classics retread. He’s not selling 100,000 copies of any of these books or anything, but I think the canonization effect is pretty clear. Alice Munro or even Mario Vargas Llosa are great recent examples of authors who were already at this kind of summit. And here too you can start to see how the Swedish Academy works. I think they do have a list of big names that they want to honor and then they kind of mix it in with much smaller names. The last two Nobel laureates, Louis Glück and Abdulrazak Gurnah, are not huge names compared to somebody like Ishiguro.

Laura: My brief summary of the theory of the effects of the prize is if you’re in the sweet spot of being pretty well respected, a lot of your books are in print, it can just push you into a canonical zone where you might start popping up more on the to-read lists of casual readers. If you’re more obscure, maybe never make that jump. And then if you’re super popular like Ishiguro, I would be curious if that’s really had any effect on his sales; how do you become more widely read than Kazuo Ishiguro was? His books were already on sale in supermarkets in Europe. And then there’s a kind of writer, someone like Philip Roth, who also, before he died, was in this category of, you couldn’t be more widely read as a living writer. And he really felt that he needed to have the Nobel Prize to put the final stamp of genius on him, and it was like a yearly obsession that he would be like waiting for the phone call from Sweden and then be devastatingly crushed when the announcement came out every year and it wasn’t him. There was specific bench that he would sit on in Manhattan near his house and sit there and process his disappointment every year. So there is this weirdly, stratospherically famous writer who feels like they just need this, like this is just the last thing to get that puts you up there with Eliot and Faulkner and all the geniuses.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, Roth is an interesting case too because I think that you also get the sense that a lot of literary legacies are fickle. They’re fickle, right? So Roth, who is huge, his reputation has declined. And I feel like that if your legacy is not so secure, it becomes much more important. And yet you can make this huge list of people who haven’t won the prize. James Joyce didn’t win the prize. Proust didn’t win the prize. Tolstoy didn’t win the prize. Virginia Woolf didn’t win it. Chekhov, Kafka, Rilke, Nabokov, Brecht, Borges, Lorca, James Baldwin...

Laura: Right, there is an illustrious tradition of Nobel snubs.

Alex Shephard: Yeah.

Laura: This is something I wanted to ask you about: When does it become a Nobel snub? Because like I’m not gonna win the Nobel Prize, Alex isn’t gonna win the Nobel Prize, but we haven’t been snubbed. There are very successful novelists out there, like Rachel Cusk. She’s not being snubbed every year if she doesn’t win a Nobel Prize. So when do you enter snub territory?

Alex Shephard: Yeah, I would say probably if it’s around—Roth is a sweet spot. You would have to be considered a canonical writer in your home country. You’d have to be internationally famous. I think I and many other people interpreted the Dylan Nobel Prize, in part, as a direct snub on Roth.

Laura: Explain the dynamics there and the way you game it out because there are sort of rules, unwritten rules that say like two Jewish men from America are not going to win it two years in a row.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, that’s basically it. And I think also one of the reasons why I think Roth was so convinced that he was gonna win is, you look at this generation of postwar American writers that he’s a part of—Pynchon, Updike I guess too—and Roth is kind of at the top of that, at least if you’re looking at who usually wins the Nobel Prize. He’s speaking to a specific strain of American writing. He’s internationally popular and famous and well regarded, and instead the Academy was like, “Oh, we’re going to award it to this other guy. He’s born around the same time. He’s also Jewish, and he is even more of a voice of a generation than you.” And he’s also probably somebody that Roth doesn’t seem to have respected particularly much. I should say too, I didn’t think that Dylan was gonna win it, but he’s the greatest. You know what I mean?

Laura: Sure. I mean you don’t give a prize like that to someone who so evidently doesn’t need it and whose fame so vastly supersedes the fame of the Nobel Prize. He’s also working in a medium that is much more popular than traditional written literature.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, a songwriter had never won it before Bob Dylan, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t think that it was gonna happen. I think one of the things with the prize—there’s a really good book called The Economy of Prestige that this guy, James English, who’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, that makes the case that what a lot of these prizes are doing and the Nobel is particularly deft at doing is, is you have to be balancing things constantly. You have to give it to a popular writer or somebody who has an acclaim and then you have to mix it in with all these other people, and it can never be too obscure for too long, but you also can’t have too many snubs. But the Roth thing eventually gets its own logic, where at some point you’re just like, “Well, of course Philip Roth was never gonna win the Nobel Prize.”

Laura: There’s this sense of if you want it too much, they’re not going to give it to you. If you start campaigning to get this prize, you’ve just forfeited your chances of getting it.

Alex Pareene: After the break, we’ll be back to talk about the campaign to award the Nobel to Salman Rushdie. What’s the argument for giving it to him, and would it be in keeping with the prize’s politics?

Laura: One of the reasons that we wanted to do the episode this year was because there’s been this campaign to get Salman Rushdie the Nobel Prize this year, and this isn’t the first time that there’s been a campaign for Rushdie to get the Nobel Prize. There was a movement for him to get this, or there was a lot of support for the idea of him getting it, when he was first living under the fatwa, and he didn’t get it. Actually there was this whole controversy where one of the judges on the committee actually resigned because she was so appalled that they weren’t giving it to Rushdie, and then that all kind of ebbed away. Then he emerged from hiding, started to live a more normal life. This summer he was obviously the victim of an incredibly shocking violent attack and has been recovering in hospital for the last couple of months. During that time, both Bernard-Henri Lévy and David Remnick have published pieces floating the idea that he should be awarded the Nobel Prize and that it would be a really strong statement of support for freedom of expression to give it to him. So when I saw these, I felt like, “Oh no. Well if he was ever going to win the Nobel Prize, like it’s definitely not gonna happen now.” Like this is a prize where the committee really does not want to be seen to be pressured in any way, and I think it raises a question of what the prize is. There’s sort of a feeling that it is a political decision who you give it to, but it’s not an incredibly clear cut political decision, like they’re not going to make the obvious move. Can you talk us through the recent politics that you can intuit from some of the prizes? What do we broadly expect them to reward, and how have they seemed to sort of deviate from that or duck and dive?

Alex Shephard: There are two contextual things that are worth drilling down on a little bit here. One is that the prize is still governed by a couple of  arcane sets of rules. The prize is administered by the Swedish Academy, which I believe was formed in 1786. They serve lifetime terms. They have their own internal guidelines, and those guidelines for the prize were created as part of this bequest by Alfred Nobel, and part of that bequest also insists that the works should be written for the greatest benefit of mankind and “in an idealistic direction.”

Laura: That’s quite a broad remit.

Alex Shephard: In the 1920s the Academy followed this, a little more closely, I think quite famously, awarding these epic novels of bootstrapping or whatever people were writing about back then. It ignores it when it feels like it, but one of the other things that’s happened is the prize was canceled in 2018 as part of this pretty massive #MeToo scandal, in which basically the husband of one of the people on the Academy was accused by 18 women of sexual assault. There was this wave of resignations, but there was also a power struggle within the Academy, so you saw this new direction of the prize, the awarding of Alexievich, Dylan, and Ishiguro all being part of a slightly more expansive interpretation of literature itself. What happened within the Academy, based on reporting and some conversations with people that I talked to in Sweden, is that there was a kind of conservative backlash within the Academy. The prize has since reformed in a slightly more conservative direction. When they came back in 2019, they awarded two prizes. One was to Peter Handke, who was a very controversial figure. That could be interpreted in some ways as a political statement, but what you never see is an explicit reaction in the way that Henri Lévy and Remnick are asking for. It just hasn’t happened ever.

Laura: Well, so something I wanted to run by you is a kind of theory of why people expect the Nobel Prize to make that kind of point, which is that I think there was a period during the Cold War when the Nobel Prize, they were pretty consistently giving out prizes to dissident writers, to people who had defected from the USSR and come to live in the West. It wasn’t always that every year, but there was a high ratio of those kinds of writers winning it. I think people came to see the Nobel Prize as being a reward for writers who took extraordinary risks to be able to publish their work or who had made a real statement or stood up for freedom of expression and the Western conception of that in this big struggle of ideas of the West versus the Soviet Union. Once you have the end of the Cold War, the prize loses that rationale, but it’s still awarding to writers who broadly embody those values of freedom of expression. What do you think of that?

Alex Shephard: Yeah, I think that the biggest reason why people have held onto that is, as you said, that there was this record, but also it’s one of the only things that you can hold onto with the prize itself, is that there is this consistent awarding of books by authors who had stood up for freedom of expression in some way or had been in war-torn situations or places where they had been persecuted in some way for their writing, and the expectation was that this would continue. For instance, there’s Adonis, who’s a Syrian poet, particularly in the early 2010s, was always the front-runner for the prize in terms of the betting. A lot of it is just that we don’t really know what these people talk about. The list of finalists isn’t publicized until 50 years afterward.

Laura: It’s not like the Booker Prize where we get the long list, and we get the shortlist, and then we get the winner.

Alex Shephard: Yeah. We simply have no idea what is happening at any point.

Laura: So what would be the argument for Rushdie to get that prize?

Alex Shephard: What you see in the Henri Lévy and Remnick pieces is this argument that the prize should stand up to this assault on free speech, and I think that’s an argument that is rooted in these debates about cancel culture, particularly in America, but also in Europe as well. There’s an implicit argument that whatever college students are doing at Oberlin right now is somehow the same or quite similar to this guy who stabbed Salman Rushdie a bunch of times in Chautauqua, and I think that that is tasteless. It’s also not how the Academy works, but I think it also ignores a recent history of the prize itself, which is that they did give a prize on behalf of freedom of expression when they awarded Peter Handke. They said that essentially Handke’s political views, which are in my opinion abhorrent, they just kind of hand-waved the whole thing. I have talked to members of the Swedish Academy, and they just said, “You know, we don’t care about that. All we care about is the sort of novels themselves.” I’m only being a little facetious when I say that that was a prize that fought back against cancel culture, and I think it should be seen that way. The fact that that’s sort of ignored in those pieces is revealing.

Laura: Well, the statement they’re making there is that they will express whatever they want to express as a committee, that nothing will stop them giving the prize to who they want to give it to, which in this case is Peter Handke.

Alex Shephard: Yes.

Laura: Not so much rewarding his free expression or Salman Rushdie’s free expression.

Alex Pareene: But also, it’s not the Nobel Prize for bravest speech. That’s what seems to be the flaw in the argument there. I mean they’re not really making a case for Rushdie on literary merit so much.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, there is a case to be made there. It’s probably a little narrower than the prize is usually awarded for. It would be built on the back of essentially three novels. Rushdie’s post-fatwa output has been pretty terrible for the most part, and I think that that’s why you see this kind of confusing effort to turn this into the PEN America award for freedom of expression as opposed to, as Laura said, I think this award that is very self-consciously at times, in a kind of convoluted way, trying to only make this case that it’s immune to these outside debates. One Swedish person, I should say, fairly connected within the arts and culture scene there, explicitly said that it would be tasteless if they gave it to Rushdie, and I think that that’s how members of the committee would feel as well.

Laura: Right, it’s more plausible to imagine them doing it in 10 years’ time or 10 years ago than now.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, I mean the time to give him the award for freedom of expression was in 1990.

Alex Pareene: You got into this a little bit with talking about the scandal, but, quite literally, who elected these guys? 

Alex Shephard: Well, Alfred Nobel, I guess.

Alex Pareene: But, like, what are their qualifications? Who are these people?

Alex Shephard: They tend to be people in Sweden who are connected in the publishing industry in some way. They tend to be either poets or writers or scholars. But the process is extremely secretive, and again, you serve a lifetime appointment.

Laura: It’s basically like being a Supreme Court justice but for literature, right?

Alex Shephard: Yes.

Laura: Once you’re on the bench only you get to decide if you leave.

Alex Shephard: Yeah. I mean, they resign all the time because they bicker with each other—

Alex Pareene: But they can’t be impeached.

Alex Shephard: They can’t be impeached.

Laura: I feel like it should be more like the monarchy, in that it has this mystical air because it’s completely opaque and no one understands it, and it’s probably irrational, and none of the people giving out the award really deserve to be there, and that that just adds to the mystique and the prestige of the prize.

Alex Pareene: To me, it’s more like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Why are these people here? Why are they in charge? I just find it to be very baffling that we’ve all collectively agreed they’re the ones who get to decide what the best writer is.

Alex Shephard: Yeah, it also creates this other weird stuff where I always talk to a bunch of somewhat in-the-know Swedish people around this time of year—no one on the Academy itself—but you just get these weird things. Somebody just D.M.-ed me and was like, “You know that one of the guys on the committee this year really loves Knausgård,” and like “could it be the Knausgård year?”

Alex Pareene: What are his odds this year?

Alex Shephard: I think he was 20-to-1 the last time I checked.

Laura: I saw that Stephen King has odds on the Ladbrokes thing, which was baffling. What do you think’s going on there?

Alex Shephard: My assumption is that somebody just bet big on Stephen King, and again, you also have to think about this from Ladbrokes’s perspective, like they want people to bet.

Alex Pareene: They want people to bet on it, right. It’s the same. It’s funny because it’s like all gambling: The odds are set as much by what you want the punters to do as by what you expect the Academy to do.

Alex Shephard: Exactly, and so Murakami has become the new Bob Dylan for me in that he’s almost always listed as a favorite. I think it’s 16-to-1 this year. I am as convinced that he would not win as I was convinced that Bob Dylan would not win, so take this as a grain of salt, but there’s this kind of push-pull here where Murakami’s status as the most popular writer of literary fiction that makes him this leading candidate for the prize, but it is the fact that he is the most popular writer of literary fiction in the world that is almost certainly why he won’t win the prize.

Laura: So this year who’s making it into the likely-to-win category?

Alex Shephard: I will say three names. One is Jon Fosse, a Norwegian playwright. He would be the first dramatist to win I think since—

Laura: Since [Harold] Pinter, maybe.

Alex Shephard: Since Pinter, yeah. He also is a novelist, incredible novelist. He’s extremely Scandinavian. He literally has a book called Melancholy. There is a lot of noise about a Chinese writer winning. [Can] Xue, who is this amazing uncategorizable avant-garde Chinese writer, I think would probably be my pick. And then—she’ll be in New York in a couple weeks—Annie Ernaux, the French memoirist, is one of, I mean I would love it if she won, she’s amazing. She wrote this book The Years, which is this memoir that’s written in the third person.

Laura: Simple Passion. If she won the Nobel Prize, I think that’s a novella that everyone would have read.

Alex Shephard: Yes. I mean, that is the single best affair book ever written, Simple Passion.

Laura: I was gonna ask you about her earlier actually, because I think if they gave it to her that would also read as a different kind of political statement because Happening, her novel about getting an abortion before it was legal … could be seen as a statement about Roe v. Wade being overturned and abortion access being restricted. Obviously that’s a pretty local concern to the U.S., but I do think that’s something that the world is looking at and that the committee could plausibly choose to comment on obliquely if they decided to award it to her even though she’s a French writer.

Alex Shephard: I think it would probably be similar to Dylan winning it in 2016, in that the committee would have plausible deniability about it being a political statement, but I think certainly in the U.S. there would be plenty of people who would read it that way.

Laura: OK, so the most important question: Who is definitely not going to win the Nobel Prize? Because this is the prediction you’re usually wrong about, so I think we need this on tape.

Alex Shephard: Haruki Murakami, not going to win. Salman Rushdie, not going to win. Stephen King, not going to win. Joyce Carol Oates, not gonna win. I could keep going. I would normally say Knausgård, but now I’m a little shook. I guess the other name that keeps coming up in my conversations with Swedes is Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French novelist. I don’t think the Academy has the stomach to do that so soon after a Handke, but you never know. I’ll say Houellebecq not going to win, but he’s the first name that’s come up in conversations with at least three Swedish people. Jonathan Franzen, also not going to win.

Laura: Oh yeah. OK, that’s where we had to end this. Thank you very much, Alex.

Alex Shephard: Thank you.

Laura: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.

Alex Pareene: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.

Laura: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.

Alex Pareene: If you enjoy The Politics of Everything and you want to support us, one thing you can do is go to wherever you listen to the podcast and rate the show. Every rating and review helps.

Laura: Thanks for listening.