Thursday, October 07, 2004

Nobel literature

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded to Doris Lessing, dammit.

But it did go to a woman: Elfriede Jelinek

"for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power".

The press release is rather minimalist, but perhaps the reasoning behind the choice will be fleshed out later in the day.

Can I tell you a secret? I've never heard of Elfriede Jelinek.

Featured on the Nobel Web site today is a really interesting article on the history of and criteria for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The primary concern above all: how is one to interpret Nobel's will? — that the prize go to the person who, in the literary field, had produced "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction," and the candidate should have bestowed "the greatest benefit on mankind."

Allén concluded that Nobel actually meant "in a direction towards an ideal", and specified the sphere of the ideal by the general criterion for all the Nobel Prizes: they are addressed to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". "This means, for instance", Allén added, "that writings, however brilliant, that advocate, say, genocide, will not comply with the will."

Interpretations and policies have demarcated distinct eras of categories of prize-winners:
- A Lofty and Sound Idealism (1901-12)
- A Policy of Neutrality (World War I)
- The Great Style (the 1920s), exhibiting classicism and "wide-hearted humanity"
- Universal Interest (the 1930s)
- The Pioneers (1946- ), providing "world literature with new possibilities in outlook and language"
- Attention to Unknown Masters (1978- )
- The Literature of the Whole World (1986- )

The article also discusses criticisms regarding the politization of the prize (including in the selection of "neglected" languages or countries), but concludes that The Nobel is evolving into an award that is truly literary.

The Academy cannot have the ambition to crown all worthy writers. What it cannot afford is giving Nobel's laurel to a minor talent.

Maybe next year, Doris.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sharing a secret: I had never heard of her either. Does this mean that my literature degree will be revoked - and if so can it be replaced by something that might make my mother happy (perhaps law or medicine).

Sharing a non-secret: I am also an avid fan of Doris Lessing's work.