Funny Business with the Nobel Prize for Literature

Traipsing through the Polish press lately, I found an interesting piece of commentary in Rzeczpospolita on The Spoiling of the Nobel Prize for Literature, by Waldemar Zyszkiewicz, a member of the Polish Writers’ Association. (You can read a history of that Association – in Polish – by following the link. It looks like yes, it was your standard Communist state writer’s union during most of the post-war period, but that its members offered quite a bit of resistance – and suffered quite a few arrests – during the Solidarity/martial law period of the 1980s.) You might recall my posting of not so long ago in which I commented on the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a contrast to the Nobel Peace Prize which was my principle object of discussion. It seems I was too optimistic even in my evaluation of the Literature Prize; according to Zyszkiewicz, the rot also set in there some time ago.


The issue here, as you would expect, is evaluation criteria, i.e. whether the prize in question really goes to the appropriate recipient. It’s the same issue as that which I examined in my PC Prize post. For the Literature Prize I was perfectly willing to accept somewhat of a watering-down of the selection criteria (whereas for the Peace Prize I was not) since, as I pointed out, “true art of any kind simply does not lend itself to valid evaluation on the basis of naming the ‘best’ or even compiling lists of ‘Top 40 hits.'” Instead, my view was that the Literature Prize’s true function was simply that of pointing out authors that the rest of the world – i.e. outside of their own country/language area – should know about, and read, but probably does not.

Note that while that was a “watering-down” of the more absolute criteria normally assumed to be employed – namely crowning the world’s “best” literature – it’s not a complete abandonment of standards: the work of an author awarded the Prize is still assumed to be of the extraordinary quality required to merit such a prominent headlining as worth world readers’ while. Sadly, rather early-on in his piece Zyszkiewicz disabuses me of any notion that that’s really the case.

It’s rather significant, in my mind, that this commentary is coming from a Polish source (not to mention being published in Rzeczpospolita, one of the two main general-interest Polish dailies). For Poland is truly a literary heavyweight nation, a place where they have an extensive literary tradition (somewhat remarkable, when you think about how the history of the Polish state itself has been so fragmented in the past few centuries) and which itself boasts a number of Nobel Prize winners, most recently the poetess Wislawa Szymborska (1996) and including the recently-passed-away anti-Communist refugee and poet Czeslaw Milosz (1980). Indeed, those of you thinking of learning Polish may want to derive inspiration for the Sisyphean effort which that is likely going to require in the claim that Polish fiction is indeed a vast literary treasure-trove, largely unknown to the world precisely of that difficult idiom in which it is written.

So when it’s a piece on the Nobel Prize for Literature written by a Polish commentator that I come across in my on-line meanderings (and especially when that subject is still fresh on my mind), I sit up and take notice. Of all the other national presses I cover, I think only the French would also have the innate credibility on this subject that would prompt me to do the same – except that much of French intellectual discourse has now unfortunately been tangled up in political (especially trans-Atlantic) disputes for quite a while, so that it might be hard to find an equivalent literary award commentary that you couldn’t suspect of advancing some hidden agenda.


Actually, Zyszkiewicz also has a political agenda, that he certainly doesn’t try to hide. It’s just that that conflict-of-values which orients his aesthetic judgments – he’s of the Catholic Right, so he doesn’t like the atheistic left – these days doesn’t resonate so loudly. The crux of his complaint, though, is entirely as overarching as it is predictable. The subtitle to his essay (whose proper title, again, is The Spoiling of the Nobel Prize for Literature), is “The problem that people receive the [Literature] Nobel for the popularization of opinions that are aspects of a current ideology, whether that ideology is de rigueur or simply a la mode.” Especially under Communist rule, Zyszkiewicz related, the Nobel Prize was indeed respected as the world’s literary prize of highest rank, an attitude based upon a conviction of the utter impartiality of the eighteen members-for-life of the Swedish Academy whose yearly task it is to pick the winner. However, that impartiality he finds to be sadly wanting; apparently these gentlemen (and four ladies) are unable to keep separate considerations of true artistic quality from “what I like privately,” “what corresponds to my own opinions,” or even “what I find to be attractive propaganda [atrakcyjna agitka].” True, the Swedish Academy’s task has grown harder over the years with the wider access to literature as books have become easier and cheaper to produce and distribute – happily, Zyszkiewicz doesn’t dwell on the modern distractions of electronic media that have simultaneously reduced the inclination on the part of modern man to actually read them – but that should just prompt its members to greater efforts to be careful to find the true gold among the expanded pool of dross. No such luck; where before it can be shown the awarding of the Nobel Prize was frequently distorted by geographical considerations (and you’ll recall that that was something I identified and even accepted in my last post on the Nobel prizes), the record of the last two decades reveals it to be further distorted by our old enemy, political correctness.

Naturally, this is the political correctness of the Left he is talking about here. Even more naturally, we rather expect Zyszkiewicz to provide some convincing examples if are not to dismiss his piece outright as a mere polemic from the Right. But provide examples he does; and these are key not only for enabling the reader to judge the validity of his thesis, but also for providing the true “added value” of his entire piece, as you learn things here about past Nobel laureates that you probably didn’t know before.


First of all, within that period of the past twenty years Zyszkiewicz estimates a 3-to-1 proportion between “various not-bad writers lucky enough to conform to the tastes of the Swedish Academy members” on the one hand and “laureates with a serious body of work and a certain artistic gravitas” on the other. He lists among that latter group J.M. Coetzee (2003; although he also complains about his views later), V.S. Naipaul (2001), Günter Grass (1999), Kenzaburo Oe (1994), and Octavio Paz (1990). Among the former, though, he sees a common “red thread” (so to speak) of affinity to or even membership in the Communist Party. The Czech Jaroslav Seifert (1984) had a prominent position in the Czech Communist Party. The same was true of José Saramago (1998) in the Portuguese Communist Party, Gao Xingjian (2000) in the Chinese, Dario Fo (1997) in the Italian, and yes, Elfriede Jelinek, last year’s winner, in the Austrian. It’s Dario Fo whom he picks out for special attention; that Italian playwrite not only could never get a visa to enter the US (with one exception in 1984) because of his anarchist views, but was also notably anti-Catholic in his writings, and a side-issue in Zyszkiewicz’s article is his contention that Catholic writers find it impossible to win the Nobel Prize, mainly because of the stout Lutheran Protestantism of Alfred Nobel himself.

Then there is Nadine Gordimer, winner in 1991. The “political correctness” to which Zyszkiewicz ascribes her Nobel is not Communism per se but rather opposition to apartheid in South Africa. She agitated for many years on behalf of the African National Congress and in fact Nelson Mandela met with her shortly after finally being released from prison. No less than Per Wästberg, member of the Swedish Academy since 1977, described her publicly as the “Geiger-counter for apartheid.” Now, there is no evidence that Zyszkiewicz is trying to defend apartheid here – he does at least implicitly recognize the struggle against it for the mighty effort that it was; his point is simply that involvement for or against apartheid should have nothing to do with selection to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (as opposed to, say, the Peace Prize). In this vein he later briefly discusses J.M. Coetzee and how he was not particularly appreciated as any sort of national treasure by the new black-majority-rule governments in South Africa, to the extent that he even moved away to go live in Australia. Unfortunately, even Coetzee has spoiled in his old age: Zyszkiewicz calls him now a “leftist to the marrow of his bones” and cites the author’s alleged recent campaigns in favor of animal rights, in which he purportedly compares modern, factory-like cattle-slaughter processes to genocide in wartime. At least he entered this strange phase after producing a body of literary work genuinely deserving of the Nobel Prize he received in 2003 – or at least that’s what I think Zyszkiewicz is implictly saying here, as I try to read between the (Polish) lines of his piece.


Finally, an interesting shot that he takes at Imre Kertész and Elfriede Jelinek, the 2002 and 2004 laureates respectively, whom Zyszkiewicz clearly puts into the “just not-bad writers who struck it lucky” category. How is it, he asks, that so many people had never ever heard of these two writers before they came out of nowhere to win the Nobel Prize? – and here is speaking not of the general public but of literary critics, professors, people who should have known about them. I find this interesting, because that is precisely the impression I had about Kertész. Through my study of Hungarian I had acquire some familiarity with the leading figures of Hungarian literature – at least of the 20th century – but I myself had certainly never heard of Kertész and neither had my Hungarian teachers! Could it be that in these cases the Swedish Academy was simply clever enough in performing an identifying service to pick out worthy writers who may have been unknown on the world stage but known well-enough in their own countries? Actually, no; in fact, the common denominator here is that the works of both Kertész and Jelinek were mainly known in Germany than in their home countries. What’s more, in their works they had a pronounced tendency to criticize the conduct of the citizens of their home countries during the Second World War. Is this the influence of German critics asserting itself, Zyszkiewicz asks, and at the same time gaining for themselves a conscience-easing alibi – i.e. in the form of “It wasn’t just the Germans, remember, who perpetrated the Third Reich’s crimes”?

In any case, at the end Zyszkiewicz sums up his lament: “It seems that without any changes wrung out the Swedish Academy by Nature, no author of conservative views has a chance at the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not even if they create an unquestioned masterpiece.” Maybe he’s going too far; this is to some degree a polemic from the Right – but then, go ahead an name any Nobel Laureate, especially of the past couple of decades, who qualifies as a counter-example. Whether his point is valid or purely polemic, I appreciated learning things about past awardees that I didn’t know, both as stand-alone facts and in the patterns Zyszkiewicz is able to form from them.

(Administrative note: If you read all the way down to here, then you’re either interested in literary questions and/or the Polish press. Regarding the latter, be advised I’m due to head off travelling for about a week-and-a-half. Not only will this reduce the frequency of my posting, but separation from my excellent Polish dictionaries from the publishing house Wiedza Powszechna – that is likely to ring a bell to those of you interested in the Polish press – means no more Polish articles until I return. Be forewarned that I’m likely to take a hankering after Danish, instead – but who knows? It’s whatever turns up that’s interesting, as usual.)

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