On October 8th, the Swedish Academy awarded Louise Glück the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Glück—a former US Poet Laureate—is the third English–language winner in five years and the second American. She’s an accomplished poet, renowned for her introspective verse and her thoughtful writing on family and trauma. And for the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award battered by controversy these last few years, Glück comes as a largely agreeable choice. Yet she’s an ambiguous indication for the future of the prize—whether it will steer more toward social consciousness or continue instead its maverick record.
In 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.
An extremely contentious awardee, Dylan is neither writer nor poet, nor is he a playwright or critic. Strictly speaking, he exists outside the limits of ‘literature,’ a singer known more for his cultural context than any specifically ‘literary’ merit. For many critics, Dylan was a poor–taste stab at relevance by a fading institution, an attempt to reassert the Nobel Prize into the forefront of cultural consideration. But Dylan was also an unprecedented awardee—an intimation that the Nobel Prize in Literature was no longer confined to its name since music and film were now fair game.
Yet the Nobel Prize faced additional scrutiny in 2018, when allegations of sexual misconduct rocked the Swedish Academy. French–Swedish photographer Jean–Claude Arnault, the husband of Swedish Academy member Katarina Frostenson was found guilty and imprisoned for rape. Arnault and Frostenson had previously been accused of financial misconduct, as well as leaking in advance the Nobel laureate. The combination of these scandals led to calls within the Swedish Academy for Frostensen’s ouster. But when Frostenson refused to resign from her post, a rash of resignations followed, leaving the Swedish Academy gutted. No prize was awarded in 2018. However, chair Anders Olsson acknowledged the Eurocentrism of the award, its historical male focus, and vowed to have a new and inclusive Nobel Prize in the future.
When two awardees were announced in 2019—that year's winner and a retroactive 2018 prize—the irony was palpable. Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke both became Nobel laureates, two white European belles-lettres writers. And Peter Handke brought along some political baggage to the rejuvenated socially–aware Nobel Prize. He was roundly criticized for his support of Slobodan Milošević, Serbian war criminal, and his denial of the Bosnian genocide. His win ignited a firestorm of protest. How could the Nobel Prize honor a writer with such repulsive political views? The Swedish Academy defended itself: Handke was a fabulous writer, who would be seen in fifty years as the obvious choice. And, from content alone, it’s hard to deny that they’re right.
Handke really is an exceptional writer, deserving of the Nobel Prize. Yet his win implies an apolitical award, one which ignores the message and character of a writer and focuses entirely on his work. In today’s literary landscape, this apoliticality is an unrealistic goal. The contemporary Nobel Prize would seem to have political responsibility, a duty that it has long ignored and one concomitant with its visibility and status.
The Nobel Prize in Literature acts as canonical kingmaker for many of its winners. You don’t need to win the Nobel Prize to become an important writer. Tolstoy never won it. Neither did Borges or Nabokov. But for many artists, the Nobel Prize opens up the door to the Canon. The award can, and often does, lift an author out of relative obscurity and into tremendous success. By awarding problematic writers like Handke, the award could conceivably give platform and prominence to their views. Instead, the Nobel Prize could recognize writers who have long been overlooked due to race, gender, country of origin, and other factors. That’s how the argument goes, anyway.
Discussing her win with the New York Times, Glück remarks that she is shocked the Nobel Prize would award “a white American lyric poet.” Just hours after her victory, Glück seems less than thrilled. The Nobel Prize comes with roughly a million dollars, but a host of new responsibilities, too. Popular demand. Increased public scrutiny. Censorious backlash if the prize is deemed undeserved. 1974 laureate Harry Martinson committed suicide two months after receiving the Nobel, when faced with a vitriolic reaction to his win. Evidently, Glück believes the Nobel Prize and its responsibility ought not to have gone to a white American lyric poet, but to someone of a different, less represented background.
The issue then becomes one of philosophy. Should the Nobel Prize honor aesthetics and achievement alone? Or should it incorporate social factors into its decision? The secrecy of the Swedish Academy complicates this determination. The rationale behind any given winner is unclear. And it’s also unfair to state conclusively that social factors don’t influence the prize. French writer Michel Houellebecq is equally deserving of the award and is frequently a top speculative choice. He’s also a writer mired in controversy for his depiction of women and sex, as well as islamophobia. A win for Houellebecq would have been infinitely more incendiary than Glück’s. Could Glück’s selection over Houellebecq then be a choice of social origin? It’s hard to say one way or another.
It’s easy to say, however, that the Nobel Prize in Literature is an award that honors art, that esteems a high level of craftsmanship and originality, regardless of its writer. And in many ways, a book stands alone. It exists independent of its author. Its meaning lies in the text itself, rather than the pen of its creator. A book is not beloved for the actions of its author. A poem is not remembered for the politics of its poet.
The Nobel Prize honors a writer based on their writing. It chooses the most ‘deserving’ oeuvre for a given year. This year, Louise Glück won based on the content and merit of her work. And no matter who wins in the future—no matter who we want to win instead—the Nobel Prize will remain a celebration of art above all and of the meaning invested in words, rather than who wrote them.