Fifty years of secrecy veil every Nobel prize. Though leaks and whispers abound, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation restrict disclosure of information about the nominations, nominees, nominators as well as investigations and opinions related to the award of a prize..
As people expressed shock, joy, disappointment, and bewilderment over Bob Dylan getting the Literature Nobel this year, it became clear that most were unaware of the process that leads to the awarding of this most prestigious of literary prizes.
One — all 18 members of the Academy are Swedish and appointees for life. Two: the prize is not for a single work but the entire output of a writer. Three: six to seven hundred letters inviting nominations are sent out by the Swedish Academy to professors of literature and of linguistics and previous Nobel laureates in literature.
Also eligible to send in nominations without waiting to be invited are the heads of those societies of authors which represent literary production in their respective countries. Four: between February 1 and March 31, hundreds of nominations are scanned and screened to make up a list of 15-20 writers who are, in the month of April, read and discussed in order to distil the choices to just five. Quite a lot to read even if your job is only to read. And if some of it is in translation (Spanish, French, English) from cultures that are opaque to Sweden, they need to be even more carefully studied.
The month of May sees the final list of writer candidates. (We can cease wondering how the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer whose entire work fits into a single book won six years ago.)
Even a final or shortlist of five writers who might each have published six to eight books to attain the kind of stature which would place them in the first circle would oblige the members of the Academy to read at least 50 books between June and August every year and this amidst their regular workload and the rest of the business of living. Remember, this happens every year.
In his The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria Behind the Choices (1991), Kjell Espmark wrote “…the history of the literature prize is in some ways a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will.”
A second edition of this book will be hard put to analyse how at least a dozen writers from countries other than the U.S. were tossed into the dark for a great pop star, a singer-composer who never set out to write Literature.
With new media overturning the old and keeping in mind that ours is the age of mindfulness, we have to ask a rhetorical question: where have all the writers gone? Where are the coffins of light? Where are all those struggles with survival, oppression and hunger, those silent adventures of love and imagination.
Perhaps neither Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o nor Mahasweta Devi (who was alive till July this year) touched as many lives as Bob Dylan’s nominator boasts his nominee did, but for depth and civilisational importance Dylan does not come even close to Mahasweta Devi or Ngũgĩ.
Lyricists and songwriters have their awards and decorations, and Asia has had great lyricists writing for both cinema and the music industry. Were they Nobel material? Weighed in the same balance as this year’s winner, the late Majrooh Sultanpuri or Kannadasan might have been worthy winners.
But… for the time it took to write this article, I forgot how far we are from the centre and that classics whether ancient or contemporary no longer offer models for living. Perhaps India’s Mahasweta Devi’s concerns were too remote, too tribal, too Third World for the consideration of the jury. Was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — repeatedly nominated from Kenya — read by anybody on the jury ? If he was, we have to wonder how his Petals of Blood , The River Between and Wizard of the Crow could have been set aside for someone whose answers are still blowing in the wind.
The internationalisation of literature is a daunting phenomenon but if it trivialises the very creativity it is supposed to celebrate, we should learn to ignore it.
Mini Krishnan edits literary translations.