Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How They Pick the Nobel Prize in Literature

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How They Pick the Nobel Prize in Literature

Article excerpt

The award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Dario Fo in 1997 delighted some and galled other disciples of literature around the world.How could the folks in Stockholm choose this Italian joker, skipping over America's Arthur Miller, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, the Czech Republic's Milan Kundera, South Africa's J.M. Coetzee, and dozens of other notable writers? Picking an actor/playwright, known for his assaults on capitalism, Catholic religiosity, and the Italian government, raised a din of discord among the literate.Contention is nothing new to the prize; the choice of laureates has been marbled with dispute since the first winner, Sully Prudhomme, was announced in 1901.So again, this year, the literary world awaits next week's Nobel announcement both bemused and expectant. Who will be picked? More important, why?In selecting Mr. Fo, the Swedish Academy cited him as a writer "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden." Defending the integrity of the weak has a lustrous history in the prize for literature. John Steinbeck was cited for "The Grapes of Wrath" and Ernest Hemingway for "The Old Man and the Sea." Both works evoke empathy for the working poor.At the turn of the century, debate erupted over Leo Tolstoy's rejection in favor of Prudhomme. The Nobel Committee justified its rebuff of the Russian novelist by the criteria outlined in Alfred Nobel's will, which specifies that recipients be those who, "during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,... have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.... No consideration whatever shall be given to ... nationality."In defending its choice, the academy wrote: "In countless of his works he {Tolstoy} denies not only the church, but the state, even the right of property - which he himself, inconsistently, enjoys - and contests the right of individuals and peoples to self-defense."Concepts such as "ideal direction" and "benefit to mankind" provide both wide latitude and little direction for action. Nobel's will was handwritten, and portions of it were somewhat unclear. Over decades, the interpretation of the criteria of the will has changed, particularly the exact meaning of the word ideal or idealistic.From the beginning, the academy selected writers for their collective writing rather than a particular title or "the most outstanding work." Only nine writers have specific titles mentioned in their citations.The mechanism of achieving the podium in Stockholm is actually quite straightforward. The Swedish Academy solicits nominations from a variety of likely sources: national literary societies, academies, university professors, and previous winners. Nominations must reach the academy before Feb. 1 of the year in question. The academy appoints a working committee, the Nobel Committee, to examine these nominations, using specialists as necessary (writers in languages the committee cannot read). The committee recommends a winner to the Swedish Academy, where a voice vote is taken in early October. The choice is announced immediately and the prize awarded at the Concert Hall in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.The process is democratic, requiring a majority decision. The Swedish Academy has a permanent membership of 18, resulting in occasional tie votes. The academy may award the prize jointly and has done so four times. However, the academy is under no obligation to issue a prize each year, and seven times no prize was awarded.Imagine that you are one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, appointed by the king for life (receiving a small silver token with the image of Gustav III for attending weekly meetings, every Thursday at 5 p. …

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