Oct 6, 2011

What’s Wrong With the Nobel Prize in Literature

This article argues that being in a committee that picks the winner implies an arduous task. They have to read might be hundreds of books every year.
What a relief then from time to time to say, the hell with it and give it to a Swede, in this case the octogenarian acknowledged as his nation’s finest living poet and a man whose whole oeuvre, as Peter Englund charmingly remarks, could fit into a single slim paperback. A winner, in short, whom the whole jury can read in the original pure Swedish in just a few hours. Perhaps they needed a sabbatical. Not to mention the detail, not irrelevant in these times of crisis, that the $1.5-million-dollar prize will stay in Sweden.
But most healthy of all, a decision like this, which we all understand would never have been taken by say, an American jury, or a Nigerian jury, or perhaps above all a Norwegian jury, reminds us of the essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously. Eighteen (or sixteen) Swedish nationals will have a certain credibility when weighing up works of Swedish literature, but what group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions. And why should we ask them to do that?
I can't even start to assess the merits of the current winner, Tomas Tranströmer, but there is a fundamental point in the article. At least in economics there are more or less objective measures that makes it easier to choose the winner, such as article citations. Besides, the majority of the economics literature is in English. In fact, what the Nobel Committee could do in the case of economics is to choose one name from the predictions, and nobody would be surprised. Picking the economics winner is definitely easier, by a lot, than choosing the literature winner. Judging esthetics is a very subjective and potentially conflict-prone task.

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