Is The Nobel Prize's Selection System Too Secretive?

While the Nobel Prize is among the highest honors in literature, very few understand the criteria upon which laureates are chosen. This week, Staff Writer Joe Sweeney '25 discusses the case for more transparency in the selection process.

Is The Nobel Prize's Selection System Too Secretive?
British-Zanzibarian author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year for his work. He is only the sixth African and the fourth Black writer to win the prize. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
British-Zanzibarian author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year for his work. He is only the sixth African and the fourth Black writer to win the prize.

On the auspicious eve of the Swedish Summer Solstice, the 2021 Council of the Nobel Prize in Literature convened for the first time to deliberate nominations. They spent that night in joyous banter, camaraderie, meatballs — as the morning star rose in the east, all had made themselves intimately known. By this time too, the respective catamarans of the 27 Nobel delegates had returned to the homeland by way of the northernmost fjord, having embarked on a journey six months prior to discover the most obscure names in literature. After reporting their findings to their superiors, they waded stoically into the blue-shocked sea, their life purpose fulfilled.

The committee then engaged in a rigorous debate over the literary merit of authors they’d never heard of. Feelings were hurt. Friendships snapped brittly in the cold fire of flaxen hearts. A member of ABBA was quartered and subsequently resurrected three and a half days later. Through this trial and tribulation, the name of the rightful winner eventually revealed itself to the inner-inner circle. The High Nobel Priestess, bearing the name to the rest of the council, solemnly gazed upon her subordinates. Finally, ultimately, with gravitas: she shrugged. And so the Prize was awarded.

Now, did any of this actually happen? That’s just the thing: the selection process of the Nobel Literature laureate is so secretive that no one actually knows how it works. So maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. One thing definitely did happen, though: the Nobel Literature Prize was given out last Thursday, Oct. 7 to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. And despite the fact that no one outside the nomination committee knows how the merit of an author’s work is evaluated; that no one even knows who is on the nomination committee or how its members are selected — the prize is still, inarguably, the most prestigious literary honor on the planet. Why?

It’s hard to say. There are, at least, a few easy answers. The prize is unique in that it is the only major international accolade that recognizes an author’s entire body of work. This kind of recognition is crucial: So many authors undergo outstanding and poignant stylistic transformations in the course of their careers that simply cannot be acknowledged in the scope of their one or two most famous titles.

Further, since the accolade is a lifetime achievement, it becomes more than just a writing award. It shines a special light on the long accompanying careers in humanitarianism, social criticism and political activism that winning writers so often have — even if these contributions aren’t mentioned in the actual letter of the prize.

With an award ceremony that feels like the embodiment of Swedish royalty, the prize itself is impressively regal. The foundation’s donors don’t scrimp on the prize money, either. The reward is ten million Swedish kronor, or 1.14 million U.S. dollars. Considering most laureates will never top the bestseller list or be approached by a Hollywood movie studio, the prize money might very well be the only satisfactory monetary reward for their writing in their entire life.

Clearly, the award has the potential to do some real good. What can make the award hard to swallow, however, is how ignorant the Nobel Foundation seems to be about what the global literary community values. Historically speaking, the foundation has ignored many of the greatest writers who ever lived. The statement seems a bit hyperbolic, but then you see the names left off the winners' list: James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Jorge Luis Borges, Bertolt Brecht and Leo Tolstoy, to list a few. The prize is not awarded posthumously, so these mistakes cannot be undone.  

You’d think the foundation would try to compensate, though, by recognizing the legendary authors who are still very much alive. Many of America’s most innovative voices (Jamaica Kincaid! Cormac McCarthy! Thomas Pynchon!) are not only surviving, but still writing. And the U.S., of course, isn’t the only country being neglected: the foundation’s oversight is felt all over the world. In Canada, Margaret Atwood is still inexplicably waiting on her turn, while Japan’s Haruki Murakami, the most popular international literary novelist of the 21st century, is another infamous annual reject.

One rationalization is that these authors are too popular to receive the award. If the prize has a purpose, distinct from all other cultural accolades, it is as an institution that singularly uplifts the serious literary achievements of a laureate. Perhaps this means awarding writers who have been passed over by the mainstream.

But the argument falls apart in light of the many instances where the foundation has contradicted this intent. Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Herman Hesse, highly popular authors whose oeuvres have often been criticized for being pedestrian, all received the prize. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose widely acclaimed novel “The Remains Of The Day” was made into an even more popular Oscar-nominated film, became a laureate as recently as 2017. But the mainstream appeal of even this nomination pales in comparison to that of the 2016 laureate — Bob Dylan, the world’s richest everyman. Exactly what the foundation is trying to do with the award is ambiguous, if not altogether paradoxical.

Then there’s the problem of African literature. The foundation has long been criticized for being Eurocentric, and specifically for failing to acknowledge African literature, particularly as it came into its own on the global stage in the 1960s. The foundation’s failure to recognize Chinua Achebe, who lived for 55 years after publishing his seminal 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” is perhaps the single most inexcusable oversight in the institution’s existence. His influence on the whole generation of writers that followed him is incalculable; to give just one high-profile example, his writing played an invaluable role in shaping the pathos of Toni Morrison’s novels, who (thankfully) received the prize in 1993.

To their credit, the foundation has seemingly sought to rectify this last problem with this year’s laureate, British-Zanzibarian Abdulrazak Gurnah. Before 2021, only six African writers had won the prize, and only two of them were non-white (Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka and Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz). Gurnah is now the third, and also the fourth Black writer of any nationality to receive the award.

Still, the choice of Gurnah specifically has baffled many. Readers and critics alike have often held up Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o as Africa’s greatest living writer since the death of Achebe in 2013. Gurnah’s novels, on the other hand, are virtually unknown outside of the U.K. (where he emigrated at the age of 20). As a matter of fact, Gurnah himself would probably be among the first to defer to the legacy of Thiong’o: he has written extensive academic criticism of Thiong’o’s work, as well as the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of “A Grain Of Wheat, Thiong’o’s most celebrated novel. So while Gurnah’s win can be viewed as a much-needed course correction, it can also be seen as a result of the foundation’s obstinate tendency for obscurity at the expense of more significant authors.

What, then, is the relevance of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Maybe it’s best to approach the prize with the same skepticism as all other priggish industry awards (e.g. the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, etc.): to regard it as a fading cultural institution which is unsure of how best to wield its influence, but is, regardless, still capable of changing lives and sparking conversations. After all, even if you’re not interested in the works of a particular laureate, there is a whole world of fantastic writers that emerges when passionate readers invariably proclaim who really deserved the award. Excitement around the prize was how I first heard of Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, who I thought had a cool name. The prose he commands in his novel “The Melancholy Of Resistance” is some of the darkest, most powerful stuff I’ve read all year.

Should the selection process of such an important award be more transparent, somehow democratized, and every once in a while made to acknowledge the enormous contributions of literary icons? In a reasonable world: yes, absolutely. But this is the real world we’re talking about. Things that are important are more often than not absurd and inaccessible. The best we can do on the outside is celebrate the foundation’s good choices, and use them as launching pads to discuss what, in 2021, great literature is still capable of doing: deepening insights, offering once-unimaginable perspectives. On the other hand — if only for the sake of our sanity — it is possible that we’d be better off treating the award with the same comic indifference as Doris Lessing when she won the prize in 2007. If the laureate isn’t the most deserving candidate, so be it — the greatest authors don’t write to win prizes anyway.