No one has been a fiercer critic of the Nobel Prize in Literature than I. It’s not the choices that are made, though some (Elfriede Jelinek, Dario Fo) have been truly bewildering; it’s just the silliness of the idea that a group of Swedish judges, always the same, could ever get their minds round literature coming from scores of different cultures and languages, or that anyone could ever sensibly pronounce on the best writers of our time. The best for whom? Where? Does every work cater to everybody? The Nobel for literature is an accident of history, dependent on the vast endowment that fuels its million-dollar award. What it reveals more than anything else is the collective desire, at least here in the West, that there be winners and losers, at the global level, that a story be constructed about who are the greats of our era, regardless of the impossibility of doing this in any convincing way.
At times I have even thought the prize has had a perverse influence. The mere thought that there are writers who actually write towards it, fashioning their work, and their networking, in the hope of one day wearing the laurels, is genuinely disturbing. And everyone is aware of course of that sad figure, the literary great who in older age eats his or her heart out because, on top of all the other accolades, the Swedish Academy has never called. They would be better off if the prize did not exist. As for the journalists, one might say that the more they are interested in the prize, the less they are interested in literature.