The Nobel Prize for Literature is incorrigible. Is there an alternative?

Jorge Carrion *


The Swedish Academy and the Swedish monarchy are hierarchical and anachronistic systems incapable of understanding, judging and rewarding the new society of creation and knowledge.


Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah poses before a press conference in London, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

A man who writes in English has won the Nobel Prize for Literature again. Despite his Tanzanian origin and his membership of the Muslim minority in his country, Abdulrazak Gurnah is a member of the Royal Society of Literature and a writer, undoubtedly British. He is an expert in the work of another Nobel laureate born in the former colonies, VS Naipaul, who, like Gurnah, came to England at the age of 18. And like Kazuo Ishiguro, also a Nobel laureate, he studied at the University of Kent.

His refugee status and his post-colonial work distinguish him on the list of the other 117 winners. But less than it may seem. He is the fifth African writer to win the Nobel, after Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfuz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991) and JM Coetzee (2003). Four are men and four write in English, although about 2,000 languages ​​are spoken on the continent and about half are female. Mahfuz remains the only one of those winners who writes in Arabic.

Every year the same story is repeated with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even when someone unexpected wins, the Eurocentric machine prevails. The vast majority of the winners – including the Chinese Gao Xingjian or the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa – live or spend long periods in Europe. That is why perhaps the time has come to put aside the episodic winner – as cultural journalists do by inertia – and to tackle the underlying problem. If the awards do not represent the literature of our time, it is because the institution that awards them has not adapted to the reality of the 21st century. The Swedish Academy and the Swedish monarchy are hierarchical and anachronistic systems, born in the Old Regime, incapable of understanding, judging and rewarding the new society of creation and knowledge.

For this reason, the Nobel laureates continue to show a very marked bias in their identification of excellence. Men from the global north have also been overwhelmingly recognized by the Pritzker, Hasselblad and Turing laureates, called respectively the Nobel laureates in architecture, photography, and computing (with venues in Chicago, Sweden, and New York). The countries with the most Michelin-starred restaurants are France, Japan, Italy, Germany and the United States, which not by chance are also among those with the most Nobel Prize winners.

The criteria with which contributions to universal culture are evaluated and rewarded were born in colonialist Europe, were adopted by academic institutions in the United States, and perpetuate logics from other times. Despite the moral crisis that it has experienced in recent years, the Swedish Academy has not undergone even a timid restructuring. They will not adapt to the new times because the tradition and the testament of Alfred Nobel weigh too heavily on them.

So there is a need for the creation of new international awards that recognize the main contributions to the arts and knowledge, in line with the characteristics of our time. Awards that reward excellence through a truly post-colonial system.

Alfred Nobel’s money came from dynamite. The Hyatt Foundation, linked to the hotel chain, pays the Pritzker Prize; the Hasselblad camera brand, the one that bears his name; Google now awards a million dollars for the Turing. It seems logical that these new awards are financed by the great economic and cultural agents of our time. The philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates might have had more concrete results if it had made the great creators or scientists of the global south visible. A systematic and fair mapping of talent also calls for the use of algorithms and big data to radically reformulate evaluation and judgment systems, the type of tools that large platforms have. The problem is that these are Western corporations that generally lack a cultural project, since they only believe in humanity as a source of data and consumption.

So it should be the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) who will lead this project. It already awards, in fact, many prizes that do not receive even a fraction of the Nobel attention. They should be transformed into a large structure that achieves the same prestige as the list of heritage, both tangible and intangible, of humanity. Prizes that include sciences and disciplines that did not exist in the 19th century. Some awards that distinguish creators from all artistic fields. Prizes decided by a jury that is not made up of members, neither for life nor of a single nationality, but from the five continents, who have instruments at their disposal that allow them to detect excellence regardless of the language and culture in which it is expressed.

I know this may sound utopian, but 20 years ago Wikipedia did not exist, which can now be read in 300 languages ​​and is the only non-profit website among the 100 most visited sites on the internet.

* Writer and cultural critic. The Washington Post


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The Nobel Prize for Literature is incorrigible. Is there an alternative?

Hank Gilbert