Has the Nobel Prize for Literature become irrelevant?

The bookies favourites going into last Thursday’s announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature were Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o. That said, it was not a surprise that neither ended up with the award, as it went to Frenchman Patrick Modiano.

Shocks, surprises and blunders have become the forte of the Nobel Committee in recent years as they attempt to stay relevant, with competition growing in the form of the Neustadt Award, The Man Booker Prize and plenty of others.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that the Nobel committee has made some questionable decisions since its inception.

It’s only two years since the committee received harsh criticism as they chose Mo Yan as their Nobel Laureate for 2012. Popular writers such as Salman Rushdie and 2009 Laureate Herta Muller spoke out against the decision because of Yan’s close connection to the Chinese government.

This example might beg the question as to whether a person’s literary merit is connected to their political beliefs. If we are to discriminate on these grounds, we could make the argument that Knut Hamsun, a supporter of the Nazi Party in Norway, or Jean Paul Sartre, an ardent member of The Communist Party, should have their awards stripped from their memory.

Perpetually tipped candidates like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy are amongst the greats of the literary tradition and have likely already written their magnum opuses, so why not give one of them the prize?

Thomas Mann said that he wouldn’t have won the prize if it wasn’t for The Magic Mountain, a monumental allegorical novel about the opposing forces in Europe before the Second World War.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, surely deserves the same kind of recognition? Perhaps Pynchon’s status as a recluse might take away from his potentiality as a candidate. Jean Paul Sartre has already made the Nobel Committee look foolish when he refused the award in 1964, because he wanted his work, rather than the Nobel Prize, to recommend itself.

The Nobel committee may feel vulnerable at the minute, as it faces competition and criticism from all sides. The list of recipients of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, reads very different from the Nobel list which has had the tendency to award the Prize within Europe or the Americas.

The Man Booker Prize, awarded every two years for a body of work in English or English translation, includes one notable name, Phillip Roth. Roth, who, alongside Pynchon, McCarthy and Delillo, is one of the premier names in world literature today, has his name run through the Nobel rumour mill every year.

The Prize, now highly scrutinised by the media, is beginning to lose some of its lustre. There doesn’t seem to be any possibility of anyone under fifty winning the award anymore, leaving the list of recipients to read like a retrospect or Hall of Fame unburdened of any relevance in modern literature.

Bryan Grogan

Image credit: huffpost.com

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