Redemption for the Nobel Prize in Literature

Catching up from 18 steps behind

Mindy Yi

Alice Munro: Nobel Laureate

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Her prize-winning collections of short stories reflect her keen observations of human behavior and succinct, effortless explication of the complexities of women’s relationships. Any survey of her career is bound to trace an almost predetermined course of prolific output earning a string of sterling accolades including the Canadian Governor General’s Award (multiple times) and the Man Booker International Prize.

Through press coverage, Alice Munro has become a Nobel Laureate of numbers: the second Canadian author recognized by the Swedish Academy—or the first, depending on how the U.S., Canada, and King Solomon would prefer to have Saul Bellow divvied up—and the 13th woman writer so honored with diploma, medal, and eight million kronor. “Can this be possible? It seems dreadful there’s only 13 of us,” Munro said, learning of her victory and its significance.

I can guarantee there’s a far more important number we won’t be hearing, though. Eighteen. It’s the number of members of the Swedish Academy: eighteen appointees who hold their seats for life, like their counterparts in the Académie Français. In Swedish they refer to themselves as De Aderton, and it’s bitingly apt that aderton is an obsolete, archaic form of the number—arton is the modern form. Established in 1786, the Academy’s main purpose is to advance (or police) the Swedish language through publishing dictionaries. Svenska Akademiens ordbok (Dictionary of the Swedish Academy, equivalent to the Oxford English Dictionary) started rolling out with Volume A in 1898—they are currently stuck on Volume U. The Swedish Academy began awarding the Prize in Literature in 1901.

Even in gender-egalitarian Sweden, men hold the bulk of seats in the Academy. Women hold five seats; a sixth woman will join on December 20, and, with the death of Ulf Linde on October 7, perhaps a seventh. The reluctant selection of women, one might guess, could be rooted in the Academy itself.

I think the whole world is applauding the selection of Munro, who is most often compared to Chekhov for the appealing and affecting style of her stories. However, the 18 members of the Swedish Academy have much of a mess to clean up. A fine choice, like Munro, will ultimately do them no good if they maintain a myopic focus on novelists and playwrights or continue to ignore women’s writings and non-political fiction.


Unlike the Nobel Prizes awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences or the Karolinska Institute, the Prize in Literature has been highly contentious, rife with political tests and subjective criteria of worth. Writers of substantial import—Borges, Joyce, Nabokov, Proust—have been snubbed. Writers of dubious merit have enjoyed the prize; in 2005 Knut Ahnlund refused further participation in the work of the Academy in protest of the selection of Elfriede Jelinek as Laureate in 2004, calling her work “a mass of text shoveled together without artistic structure.”

Accusations of politicization have plagued both the Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet in choosing Munro, the Academy can begin to restore global respectability to the award. Her fiction focuses on her own Southern Ontario, Canada, and is hardly political in comparison with a Jelinek, a Harold Pinter, or a Dario Fo.

That said, picking woman after woman after woman until reaching a ratio more favorable than 13 out of 110 is not a solution workable in the long run. It won’t add to the prestige of the prize; it might tarnish those who receive the award if the only relevant factor in selection is sex. One of Munro’s strengths is that she is a great writer. Period. No need for the mealy-mouthed qualifier of “woman-writer.”

Moreover, picking anglophone after anglophone writer will not solve the credibility problem. The Nobel Prize in Literature is not going to regain its universal renown by becoming the Man Booker clone. It recognizes great literary achievement without respect to language or borders; it has worked to transcend its Eurocentric past and must continue to do so. The English-reading public is enormously large and I believe the Prize is at its best when it promotes works not widely read in English, when it helps to preserve the dignity of minority languages and linguistic diversity.

Let me mention a final figure—one: the number of novels Munro has published. Munro is an anomaly; she has made a career from the short story during an era of its decline. Outside of literary magazines or pretended literary magazines, publishers are wary to print collections of stories, readers—those who are left—prefer the novel or non-fiction including memoir and current events.

The Swedish Academy has awarded Alice Munro a well-deserved prize, the culmination of her literary career of fifty-plus productive years. The 18 have taken a step toward improving the sexist scorecard, but many steps remain in order for the prize to catch up with the literary present. And once caught up, I hope the Prize will provide leadership in the world of literature as it continues to promote writers unknown in English and writers keeping alive the struggling genres necessary for a vibrant literary culture.

Michael Thorbjørn Feehly ’14 is a history and Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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