The Power Politics of the Prize

The Nobel for literature is about more than 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 has now presented the award to the very deserving Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In doing so, it praised "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."

The committee's typically clumsy, jargon-slathered justification for its choice offers an insight into how the Scandinavian cognoscenti view the political importance of literature. Jelinek, Fo, and Pinter (along with previous winners Gunter Grass, José Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Heinrich Boll, Pablo Neruda, et al.) were united by politics, a worldview that could be summarized 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 opposing American power. Pinter, for instance, very much supported Slobodan Milosevic's "structures of power," and Garcia Marquez is a slavish Castro sycophant.)

Can one be a great writer, in the eyes of the Nobel committee, by choosing not to satirize the bourgeoisie? If not, could that be 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 Martin Amis, whose politics are often (wrongly) characterized as right-wing and whose best novels have little to say about "resistance," would ever be considered. And it was long true that if a writer's politics offended the Stockholm presidium, he could expect, regardless of the quality of his work, to be blacklisted.

The only thing shocking about Vargas Llosa's award is that, though once a man of the left, the writer long ago embraced classical liberalism, an ideology frowned upon in Stockholm. The Nobel Prize for Literature has always been a political award, a fact demonstrated not just by those who receive the prize but by those who are denied it.

Take Jorge Luis Borges, a great Argentinian writer who had a fondness for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. According to Borges biographer Edwin Williamson, the Nobel committee forever banished him from the short list after he paid Pinochet a call. "For the remaining years of his life," Williamson writes, "his candidacy was opposed by a veteran member of the Nobel Prize committee, the socialist writer Artur 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: A Nobel academy member close to the Stalinist writer Pablo Neruda—a man who praised the genocidal Georgian on his death bed—denied Borges a Nobel because of his affinity for a thuggish, murderous dictator. Rather confusing, but it's important to remember such anecdotes. Prize winners are not just 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 Jelinek, Ahnlund resigned, calling her work "whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography" that was chosen more for political than aesthetic reasons. Jelinek'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.

Such political considerations also once infected the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. F.A. Hayek shared his Nobel with the socialist economist Gunnar Myrdahl—a move, The New Yorker reports, that "was seen within the profession as a political sop" to left-wing critics. You can't help but wonder whether Vargas Llosa, while deserving, was something of a sop to those who complained about all the lefty prize winners in recent years.

In Sweden, unsurprisingly, the choice of Vargas Llosa was viewed through an ideological prism. Aftonbladet, the country's largest and dumbest paper, published several histrionic columns ruing the choice. One writer falsely described Vargas Llosa as a "bitter anti-democrat who supports coup attempts." 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." Another writer huffed that Vargas Llosa was "anti-feminist." One columnist declared bizarrely that the prize was "a victory for the right and for the [far-right, anti-immigrant] Sweden Democrats." (In fact, Vargas Llosa supports very liberal immigration laws.)

Returning to the idea that great writers challenge 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 on the depressingly resilient Latin American caudillo system. It is unclear if Vargas Llosa's critics have read 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 is inauthentic because he lives in European exile, it is important to stress that Vargas Llosa's politics are libertarian: He supports free trade, opposes drug prohibition, and frequently quotes Milton Friedman. In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Vargas Llosa bristled at the conservative label: "I am in favor of economic freedom, but I am not a conservative." Enrique Krause, editor of Letras Libres, the intellectual journal founded by Nobelist Octavio Paz, argues that "Vargas Llosa is the opposite of a 'conservative' writer. 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 in 2010, libertarianism won. 

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at reason.