The Slate Culture Gabfest, the culturally-motivated podcast from the good people at Slate, this week had a segment on the Nobel Prize and its place amongst awards including the Oscars and Grammy’s, where the winner is often chosen through political, economic and diplomatic motivations rather than the quality of the work. They highlighted an excellent website, Great Books Guide, in which Ted Gioia lists all the Nobel Prize winners since the inception of the prize and an alternative list of all the possible winners snubbed over the years.
The lack of parity between the two lists – very few concur across both actual and deserving winner – is pretty shocking and also enlightening given the quality of the choices made by Gioia. He constantly picks works that are far more deserving of a grand and visible literary prize. Often the award seems to be given to writers well past their peak (Pinter) and, particularly in modern times, anywhere but to the US. The past two winners were Doris Lessing and this year, Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio. The latter I don’t know at all but Lessing is certainly something of a deserving winner although, as previously suggested, well past her best.
As you go down the list, specifically in the past twenty-five years, the number of fantastic authors to have been snubbed becomes startling. The most notable, as called out on the Gabfest, is Philip Roth. An incredible, provocative force of literature, Roth is still working at some pace and with some quality. His finest work, American Pastoral, came over two decades from his debut and his books from the last couple of years maintain the level of quality and brutal, comic skill that characterise his finest pieces. Continue back and you find Don DeLillo, John Updike, Haruki Murakami, Tom Stoppard, Bob Dylan and Hunter S Thompson, all thoroughly deserving of the prize and all with the ability to create great work even in their latter years.
It seems the Nobel has finally been inducted into this pantheon of awards that no longer have any power or meaning. Winning an Oscar means nothing as much as it used to while winning a Grammy means only another doorstop for west wing extension. The Pulitzer still works but can only give out anything to books from that year and can’t quite provide the sense of tradition and history that the Nobel Prize does. The question is why the prize is needed outside of finance. Is there anything that these great writers get from being told by the Nobel committee that they are great in their eyes. They’re already great. Perhaps its the certificate on the wall. Maybe it is just the money. Whatever it is, the prestige has fallen away.