The Power Politics of the Prize

The Nobel has long been about both politics and literature.


After awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to the mediocre (Elfriede Jelinek), the talentless (Dario Fo), and the hugely overrated (Harold Pinter), the Stockholm jury this year bequeathed the award to the very deserving Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, praising "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."

It is tempting to ignore the committee's typically clumsy, jargon-slathered justification for their choice, but it contains an insight into how the Scandinavian cognoscenti views the political importance of literature. Jelinek, Fo, and Pinter (along with previous winners Günter Grass, Jose Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez, Heinrich Böll, Pablo Neruda, et al) were united by politics, a worldview which could be generalized as a deep hostility to capitalism and the United States. And like Vargas Llosa, all were viewed as championing a very narrow brand of "resistance" to the "structures of power." (This usually means being opposed to U.S. hegemony, because Pinter, for instance, very much supported Slobodan Milosevic's "structures of power" and García Márquez has long been a slavish Castro sycophant.)

Indeed, after the announcement of Vargas Llosa's victory, The Guardian complained that the obscure African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o was overlooked by the usually Eurocentric committee. If you are unfamiliar with Ngugi, he is described by The Guardian as having "dedicated his life to describing, satirising and destabilising the corridors of power." And as Ngugi's British booster well knows, to take the prize home to Africa one must first attack someone deemed "powerful."

Can one be a great writer, in the eyes of the Nobel committee, by choosing to not satirize the bourgeoisie? Or if one refuses to stump for some jungle-dwelling, Kalashnikov-toting band of peasant revolutionaries? Is it perhaps why Evelyn Waugh, one of the great reactionary novelists of the 20th century, a writer of colonialist prejudice who both celebrated and ridiculed upper class pretensions, was never rewarded by the Learned Elders of Sweden? It's unlikely that a writer like Martin Amis, whose politics are often (wrongly) characterized as right wing and whose best novels have little to say about "resistance" to imperial power, would ever be considered. And it was long true that if a writer's politics offended the Stockholm presidium, they could expect, regardless of the quality of their work, to be blacklisted.

The only thing shocking about Vargas Llosa's award is that, though once a fellow-travelling man of the left, he has long since embraced classical liberalism, an ideology frowned upon in Stockholm. But the Nobel for Literature has always been a political award, a fact demonstrated not just by those who received the prize but also in those who were denied it.

Take the example of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer with a fondness for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. According to Borges biographer Edwin Williamson, the Nobel committee forever banished him from the shortlist after he paid a call to Pinochet:

"The visit to [Pinochet's] Chile finished off Borges's chances of ever winning the Nobel Prize. That year, and for the remaining years of his life, his candidacy was opposed by a veteran member of the Nobel Prize committee, the socialist writer Arthur Lundkvist, a long-standing friend of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1971. Lundkvist would subsequently explain to Volodia Teitelboim, one of Borges's biographers and a onetime chairman of the Chilean Communist Party, that he would never forgive Borges his public endorsement of General Pinochet's regime."

Let's unpack that: An academy member close to Stalinist writer Pablo Neruda—who, upon his death bed in 1973, praised the genocidal Georgian—denied Borges a Nobel because of his affinity for a thuggish, murderous dictator. Rather confusing, you must admit, but it's important to remember such anecdotes: Prize winners are not only politicized by pundits; the selection process itself is both cultural and political theater.

All of this political affirmative action was too much for committee member Knut Ahnlund. After the 2005 prize was awarded to Jelinik, whom writer Christopher Hitchens called "a mediocre Austrian Stalinist," Ahnlund resigned, calling her work "whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography" that was chosen more for political than aesthetic reasons. Jelinik's German editor defended his writer—and in doing so demonstrated Ahnlund's point. "Ms Jelinek combines a highly cultivated and literary style with political concerns," he argued, that frequently deals with "Austria's past." In other words, she already possessed the proper politics—she challenged power, after all—so why all the complaining?

Such political considerations once infected the economic prize too. Remember that Friedrich Hayek shared his Nobel with the socialist economist Gunnar Myrdahl, a move, according to the New Yorker, that "was seen within the profession as a political sop" to left-wing critics. And one cannot help but wonder if Vargas Llosa, while deserving, was something of a sop to those who complained about the number of lefty prize winners in recent years.

It was unsurprising that in Sweden the choice of Vargas Llosa was viewed through an ideological prism. Aftonbladet, Sweden's largest and dumbest paper, published a number of histrionic insta-columns ruing the choice. One writer called Vargas Llosa a "bitter anti-democrat who supports coup attempts" (sic) in Latin America. Another, trading in cartoonish Latin American stereotypes, called him "archly macho" and, further demonstrating a lack of familiarity with the region, remarked how odd it was that an intellectual from Peru could be a "neo-liberal." Later in the day, another female writer huffed that Vargas Llosa was "anti-feminist."

The dust has settled and, in the Swedish media, the attacks are still piling up. "I had to stop reading his latest novel," complained an Aftonbladet columnist, "because the unthinking macho image of woman was impossible to endure." Determining that to shout above the anti-Vargas Llosa din required ever more extreme charges, one columnist declared bizarrely that the prize was "a victory for the right and for the [far-right, anti-immigrant party] Sweden Democrats." The whole debate, the newspaper trumpeted in a headline, was whether the writer was "an anti-democrat or a hero?"

And returning the idea of writer as one required to challange power, a Swedish journalist specializing in Latin American issues thundered that Vargas Llosa "has been more a voice for power than against power," despite his passionate attacks against the depressingly resilient Latin American caudillo system. It is unclear if Vargas Llosa's critics have read any of his novels (it seems doubtful, as one could not read Feast of the Goat, an attack on Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, as representing a voice "for power"), or are merely worried that their ideological hammerlock on the Nobel has been broken.

As left-wing culture critics in Europe breathe into their paper bags, denouncing this hideous Peruvian "conservative" who lives in European exile (i.e., he is inauthentic), it's important to stress that Vargas Llosa's politics are libertarian—he supports free trade, frequently quotes Milton Friedman, and is a supporter of drug legalization—and most assuredly not conservative.

In an interview with The New York Times, Vargas Llosa bristled at the label: "I am in favor of economic freedom, but I am not a conservative." "Vargas Llosa is the opposite of a 'conservative' writer," argues Enrique Krause, editor of Letras Libres, the intellectual journal founded by Nobelist Octavio Paz, "he is a liberal intellectual."

It is unfortunate that the Nobel for literature is often more about politics than about worthy writing. But that's the way it is. And this year libertarianism won.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.

NEXT: The Demographics of Taste

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Just be happy that, at long last, a libertarian won.

    Well, yes, the honest-to-God Nobel. Because Hayek won the economics prize, but that was NOT (and still is NOT) a “true” Nobel prize.

    1. What about Milton Friedman?

    2. What about Milton Friedman?

      1. Friedman did not win a Nobel in literature either…

    3. Old Mexican|10.8.10 @ 4:46PM|#
      “Just be happy that, at long last, a libertarian won.
      Well, yes, the honest-to-God Nobel. Because Hayek won the economics prize, but that was NOT (and still is NOT) a “true” Nobel prize.”

      The way the “true” Nobel Peace prize is handed out, I’m gonna say you have a distinction without a difference.

    4. The only Nobel Prizes worth anything are the ones given in science.

  2. a Swedish journalist specializing in Latin American issues thundered that Vargas Llosa “has been more a voice for power than against power,” despite his dependably passionate attacks against the depressingly resilient Latin American caudillo system.

    I – AM – SHOCKED, SHOCKED, that a Swede would criticize a Latin American intellectual for not kissing Fidel’s ass…

  3. It is unclear if Vargas Llosa’s critics have read any of his novels[…]

    It is clear they haven’t. Let’s not beat around the bush.

  4. It was Hayek who shared the prize with Myrdal, not Friedman.

  5. Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest and dumbest paper, published a number of histrionic insta-columns ruing the choice.

    You’re being too kind – it is unashamedly dumb. The proper paper for the proper people.

  6. Michael: For some riotous, nearly blasphemous yucks, try AUBERON Waugh.

  7. Vargas Llosa’s prize is testament to the idea of resisting power structures. The row caused by his win is disturbing the powerful hold leftist ideology has had on the Committee for some time.

  8. The real question is why Reason had not informed us about this great libertarian writer before he won a Nobel Prize?

    Anyway the lament for a libertarian literary world is a pointless one. If it was it would still be dying world.

    Which brings us to a more important point. Reason covers TV, movies and a little bit of comic books and books….

    But for all intensive purposes most if not all of these art forms are on the decline.

    Here is a good note for Matt.

    Hire a video game reviewer (or better yet just assign one of people already working there to do it). The culture war is no longer being fought on the silver screen, the written page or in the boob tube. It is being fought virtually.

    For the former employees of the website “Suck” this should be a no brainier.

    1. For all intensive purposes?? What the fuck?

      1. For all intensive purposes?? What the fuck?

        What is the phrase i am looking for?

        anyway replace it with “meaningful purposes”

        Understand now?

        1. Re: joshua corning,

          What is the phrase i am looking for?

          I believe it’s “for all intents and purposes.”

          1. All indents and paragraphs?

          2. Thank you old mex

      2. Hey, he’s towing the lion….

      1. dbcooper|10.8.10 @ 5:36PM|#

        1995 and 2001 both not on Hit and Run.

        When did hit and run start? 2003?

        Also according to Wikipedia he has written 3 works of fiction since 2001:

        # 2003 ? El para?so en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise, 2003)
        # 2006 ? Travesuras de la ni?a mala (The Bad Girl, 2007)
        # 2010 ? El sue?o del celta

        and 3 works of non-fiction:

        # 2004 ? La tentaci?n de lo imposible (The Temptation of the Impossible)
        # 2007 ? El Preg?n de Sevilla (as Introduction for LOS TOROS)
        # 2009 ? El Viaje a la Ficcion

        Seriously 6 books by a great Nobel Prize winning libertarian and we did not hear shit about him until now.

        Maybe they have cut the book reviews for the blog and magazine…i don’t know.

        1. People tell me that his later period stuff is not so hot.

          1. People tell me that his later period stuff is not so hot.

            So you think Reason did not cover the books because they suck?

            1. I have no idea. Was just floating it out there. I agree that given he was a contributor and a major fiction writer with libertarian leanings it would’ve been nice to have the odd H&R tidbit on him.

    2. I review video games for a personal blog and have been a gamer for most of my life. It’s been my experience that more of the game industry (developers, publishers and even reviewers) leans left than Hollywood so finding a “libertarian” game is tough.

      Although, I think many video game protagonists could be considered Randian.

      1. I wonder what a Libertarian video game would be like. Maybe Grand Theft Auto, but without the theft and murder? Or maybe it’d be like Shadow of the Colossus but you’d just let the big guys be. Hm, we have to go back to the old days. The Railroad Tycoon days. Free Market Sim City!

  9. How the fuck can you lament the politicization of the Nobel prize and celebrate a novelist allegedly of your own political stripe getting it? Actually it’s a stretch to think that Vargas Llosa endorses the doctrinaire wight-wing shit you libertoid assholes flog. It’s like claiming that becuase Hemingway once flew over Kansas, he’s a Kansas writer.

    1. Re: Max,

      Actually it’s a stretch to think that Vargas Llosa endorses the doctrinaire wight-wing (sic) shit you libertoid assholes flog.

      “I’m huntin’ wabbits”

      1. Re: Max,

        Actually it’s a stretch to think that Vargas Llosa endorses the doctrinaire [r]ight-wing shit you libertoid assholes flog.

        Actually, Max, I have been reading Vargas Llosa for years in the paper (in Monterrey) and he espoused pretty libertarian ideas. He’s not a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian like his son Alvaro, but nevetheless a Castrista (like the love of your life, Gabo Garcia Marquez) he’s not.

        Oh, and you’re an idiot for hunting wascally wabbits. They’re fluffy and cute.

    2. Actually it’s a stretch to think that Vargas Llosa endorses the doctrinaire wight-wing shit you libertoid assholes flog

      His two Reason Magazine articles he authored in 1995 and 2001 contradict your hysterical claims:…..f-columbus…..obal-pilla

      1. A compelling riposte!

        Wight-wing, incidentally, is not a lisp. It refers to the undead wing of politics.

    3. In its original usage the word wight described a living human being.

      Humans have their own party now? The bastards.

    4. Don’t expose your ignorance, tweety-ass Max. You know nothing about this. Llosa condemns things like mass murder, rape and corruption: the things dear to your heart. However, you could empathize with El Chivo, Rafael Trujillo — he’s your kind of guy.

      1. I like Roosevelt, Keynes, Galbraith. I don’t believe they killed anybody. I like Paul Krugman. I’m a big fan of a mixed economy with a vibrant public sector. I even like hatek of the social safety net. So go stick your dick is some Republican’s ass.

        1. You are not the real Max

        2. Max|10.8.10 @ 9:26PM|#
          “I like Roosevelt, Keynes, Galbraith. I don’t believe they killed anybody.”

          And Bastiat is a mystery to you….

          1. I like Roosevelt, Keynes, Galbraith. I don’t believe they killed anybody.


            Roosevelt didn’t kill anyone?

            You are a fucking idiot.

            1. Killing nazi’s doesn’t count. Roosevelt didn’t deliberately kill too many of his own citizens.

              Course he did concentration camp a bunch of Japs, but they were reactionaries so they deserved it. (supported japanese imperialism, duh)

              1. Well, he let the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor despite having prior knowledge the attack was coming in order to sway public opinion toward US involvement in the war.

                Does that count as deliberately killing?

        3. I like Roosevelt, Keynes, Galbraith. I don’t believe they killed anybody.

          You best be trolling.

    5. “How the fuck can you lament the politicization of the Nobel prize and celebrate a novelist allegedly of your own political stripe getting it?”

      Because the “lament” is about bigotry in the process of selection. Unless libertarians have seized control of the process, it doesn’t indicate reverse bigotry, but rather a move toward open-mindedness on the socialistic-leaning types that run it.

      Also, because the good guys won, so there’s that.

  10. I don’t think libertarianism won.

    I think Llosa won in spite of his libertarianism.

    1. Re: Colin,

      I think Llosa won in spite of his libertarianism.

      That’s more accurate.

  11. But the Nobel for Literature has always been a political award, a fact demonstrated not just by those who received the prize but also in those who were denied it.

    The Nobel Prize in Literature is supposed to be in part a political award, because the writing is supposed to be in an “ideal direction.”

  12. Wonder if someone got into the Swedes’ files, turned up some dirt on the Nobel committee, and forced the decision?

    1. Wasn’t me!

    2. What have you done now?

  13. This award is about 30 years too late – he wrote his best stuff in the 60’s and 70’s.

    La Casa Verde is absolutely brilliant, and my all time favorite novel. And all of my professors in college hated him.

  14. If Graham Greene never got the NPfL, no one should have ever gotten it. Well, OK, Naipaul… Greene’s sin was not his politics but his unforgivable commercial success. Vargas Llosa?, whatever.

    1. Big fan of Greene.

  15. Disagree with your op of Pinter but other than that good article…

  16. Yes this analysis is correct on the whole. Vargas Llosa did benefit, I believe, from the relative closeness he has to many writers on the left in the region. Octavio Paz is another great writer who maintained a closeness to the ethical philosophy of Vargas Llosa over many decades. Noone can displace Octavio for me in my pantheon of favorite writers, but here is a short translation of what Enrique Krauze wrote in Letras Libres today:

    The work of Mario Vargas Llosa, in its main, is focused on a primordial indignation against the many faces of oppression and fanaticism, the oppression of the chiefs and military in his first novels, social injustice and political corruption in Conversaci?n en La Catedral, the religious fanaticisim of La guerra del fin del mundo, the fanaticisms of racial identity in his extraordinary and little read book of essays La utop?a arcaica, the failed guerrilla utopianism of Historia de Mayta and, of course, the authoritarian caudillismo of Trujillo, that paradibm of the Latin American dictator, in La fiesta del Chivo. But it never attempts to be ? not a bit ? a literature of theses.
    It is a high artistic recreation of those extremes of evil and human misery, written to reveal them, to combat them, to exorcise them.
    The playful, erotic theme of his literature, which makes you laugh, enjoy yourself and flush the faces of women and men in all languages, would seem to be a refreshment of liberty and play that Vargas Llosa needs to repose his soul after the effort of those tremendous libertarian novels. In these novels escape his other demons, his dreams and his loves.
    Vargas Llosa is everything contrary to a “conservative” writer. He is an intellectual liberal, and now is time to, facing the powerful currents of intolerance that maintain themselves in Latin America, definitively vindicate the historical legitimacy of democratic liberalism. This liberal project, a civilizing project par excellence, is that which founded our nations and it’s the same one that Vargas Llosa makes flesh and blood through his life and works. Facing authoritarian power, the liberal soul makes no distinctions. Vargas Llosa is truth, he believed in the Cuban Revolution and accompanied it at least a decade because he believed in its liberating destiny, but he had the courage to part ways with it when it made clear its irreversible totalitarian ways. And with the same conviction he has criticized military dictatorships or corrupt governments. Is it necessary to recall that he baptized the PRI as the “perfect dictatorship”? And no novel on dictators surpasses, in its combination of literary excellence and radical moral critique, his portrayal of the Trujillo regime.
    Vargas Llosa has not only defended liberty in his novels. Also in his biweekly column in El Pa?s and Reforma, and in his essays in the magazinesVuelta and Letras Libres. As an essayist and reporter he is like a young soldier of liberty. He enters frequently into the jaws of the wolf (Baghdad, Gaza, Congo, Haiti, Darfur) and has never feared becoming unpopular. The voice which he uses is the voice from within, the imperative of truth.
    His triumph is also the triumph of Peruvian literature. The tragic, profound and varied country of the Incas, Garcilaso, Poma de Ayala, Mari?tegui and Vallejo, finally has the Nobel it deserves. And the Spanish language also wins. After Cela and Octavio Paz, twenty years passed. The Nobel (as everyone well knows) was denied to Borges and seemed to be for Vargas Llosa as well. By awarding him the prize, the Academy honors him and honors itself, achieving the levels of its best prize winners.
    The Prize comes at the best moment for Latin America. The caudillismo, militarism, ideological redemptorism, populism, obtuse nationalism, racial or religious fanaticism are still present but for the past twenty years the advance of democracy has been constant. Vargas Llosa has been, after Octavio Paz, its greatest defender.
    The Nobel Prize for Mario Vargas Llosa is an act of justice for literature and liberty. Two inseparable words.

  17. Mario Vargas Llosa is a Spanish passport holder. By the same token, dozens os US nobel prize winners are not American. Why the double standard? Americans, still so much to learn…

  18. Very interesting, but I am wondering about another winner – Liu Xiaobo.

    Specifically, I note that China has called the awarding of a peace prize to him an obscenity, which presumably is their justification for banning all mention of the fact in Chinese media.

    After all, it’s OK to ban *obscene* speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled – and whereas the Chinese government considers this award obscene, and presumably found Liu’s previous utterances obscene, it’s rather hypocritical for good patriotic Americans to denounce the Chinese government on this count. They are simply applying freedom of speech the same way the U.S. government does – within the context of their belief system as to what is unprotected obscenity.

    Still, happy to see that Mario Vargas Llosa won the prize in literature.

    1. Almost forgot:

      a link:…..8S20101008

      and the quote:
      “This is an obscenity against the peace prize,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

      1. It IS an obscenity. Liu Xiaobo deserves to be punished for his crimes.

  19. You seem to be sorry that the Nobel Prize for Literature has never awarded a actual conservative writer.

    If you try to demonstrate that the political views of writers rewarded are the main reason for their election to this very prestigious award, however, you flog the literary quality of many writers who are said to have left wing political opinion.
    Why not ? Perhaps you’re right.

    Unfortunately, you do not use any literary argument to argue your criticisms.

    Evaluating a literary work needs only a literature review.

    1. Because conservatives rarely ever make good writers.

  20. all nobel prizes are a complete joke. when will people realize it?

    1. The main joke is, perhaps the nobel prize of economy.
      This awaerd was creater in 1968 and financed by a banking compagny
      ( the french bank, Indo-Suez)

  21. It is ironic that there are 2 Nobel Prize winners mentioned in this article were former nazis: G?nter Grass and Gunnar Myrdal. (Although Myrdal is perhaps better described as a “former nazi _sympathizer_”, and he did not win a real Nobel Prize.)

    BTW Dario Fo is not exactly talentless: he is entertaining. Whether this talent is Nobel-worthy, is not for me to say.

    1. In August 2006, the German writer G?nter Grass has admitted being enlisted in the 2nd SS Panzerkorps in november 1944. At that time he was 17 years old.
      His enlistment wasn’t an agreement to nazism but probably ruled by a patriotic feeling and hugely influenced by propaganda.

  22. The Nobel Prize committee forever lost all credibility for me when they allowed Borges to die without awarding him the prize for literature. The Nobels are nothing more than the Oscars for pseudo-intellectuals.

  23. > And like Vargas Llosa, all were viewed as
    > championing a very narrow brand of
    > “resistance” to the “structures of power.”

    Perhaps it’s time for a novel attacking the “structures of power” in the Nobel committee. The author could make the point unmistakable, not just by sending the esteemed committee members free copies, but by declaring on the dust jacket that the Nobel committee is too corrupt to even consider this book for the Prize.

    (It would have to be an exceptionally well-written book, of course. I wonder which world-class authors might be willing to take up the challenge?)

    Daniel in Bookline

  24. Kingsley Amis was a brilliant writer.
    He seemed to to have pretty conservative views.
    Though a lot of it was probably just said for affect.

    1. That’s a hiaku worthy of a Nobel prize!

  25. Rudyard Kipling received the prize in 1907. I think he qualifies as a conservative though possibly not in the modern American sense.

  26. While his support for the Chilean is unfortunate and inexcusable, it’s misleading to say that Borges had “fondness” or “affinity” for Pinochet. Borges was at heart a classical liberal in political climate that was split between communists and fascists. If you want to get an idea of Borges’ politics, read his essays denouncing Nazi Germany and its Argentine supporters during WWII in “Selected Non-Fictions,” or the introduciton to “Dr. Brodie’s Report” where he expresses his sympathy for anarchism, of the Herbert Spencer/Albert Jay Nock kind.

    1. I meant to add “dictator” after “Chilean.” I have no problem with Borges supporting Chileans.

  27. V.S. Naipaul won the prize in 2001. He is regarded as a conservative. J.M. Coetzee won in 2002 is regarded as a lefty. Anybody familiar with their works will instantly see how pointless such labels are: both writers are artists. Politics plays a role in prize giving everywhere. It’s astonishing to me that what the award in literature is for — aesthetics — does not even rate a mention in this rundown of recent winners. I don’t see why libertarians should not be able to appreciate literature, though I see no evidence of such appreciation here.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.