Literature

The Power Politics of the Prize

The Nobel for literature is about more than literature.

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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.

NEXT: Fly Right

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  1. GOOD MORNING reason!

  2. Good morning Suki and Rather.

  3. Those who are interested in Vargas Llosa’s politics should pick up “A Fish in the Water”, a combination autobiography and account of his bid for the Presidency of Peru. It’s a good read, and leaves little doubt about where he stands politically.

  4. Prize winners are not just politicized by pundits; the selection process itself is both cultural and political theater.

    Indeed. That’s why the Nobel is irrelevant to most people.

    And in 2010, libertarianism won.

    If it’s “theater,” then libertarianism’s “win” is the equivalent of a Tony Award.

    1. Good morning Pout!

      Seems that every Libertarian win is like a small Wyoming town cultural club awards lunch.

      1. I want to see those jazz hands, people!

  5. I think Ionesco got screwed largely for the same reason Borges did. Their politics were quite similar.

    Of course, lots of great writers have been screwed by the Nobel Committee. Like, Kazantzakis.

  6. So is it fitting or is it ironic that the prizes established by a man who regretted that his decent invention became used for massive wartime destruction are usually given to authors who espouse an ideology that, while nice in theory, has been the driving force behind some of the most horrific large scale violence in the past two centuries?

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    HECTOR CORNILLOT

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    HECTOR CORNILLOT

    PLEASE, PRAY A FEW SECONDS TO YOUR GOD, FOR EDUARDO AROCENA FAMILY; AROCENA IS THE LONGEST HELD CUBAN POLITICAL PRISONER IN UNITED STATES

  9. 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.

    I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.

  10. So how is it that Lundkvist could block Borges, but Ahnlund couldn’t block Jelinek?

  11. A word of caution about the label ‘libertarian’. A libertario in most Spanish-speaking countries has a totally different meaning from English-speaking countries, more like socialist. Costa Rica is the exception due to the Movimiento Libertario, whose roots come from the States.

  12. What do Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, August Strindberg, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, ?mile Zola, Mark Twain, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, and Anton Chekhov all have in common?

    None received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Writers and aspiring writers should hope that they won’t receive one either. you’ll be in better company.

    1. Saul Bellow did win one.

      1. Okay, but nevertheless my point is made.

    2. Saul Bellow received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Chekov clearly predated the Nobel Prize in Literature, ditto Mark Twain. The fact checking department take the holiday week off?

        1. True. I forgot Wikipedia was always a quotable, valid source. Truth is Chekov’s prime was in the late nineteenth century as he only wrote two plays and a few short stories after 1900. The prize started in 1901 and Chekov’s productivity had greatly declined by then. As for Mark Twain, his best work was published before the death of his daughter in 1896-four years before the award was established. I think the cases for Rushdie and Arthur Miller are more germain to the spirit of this article. Also I believe it to be interesting that no Nobel Laureates in Literature have been born after the Second World War, meaning that the committee has largely ignored any authors from the literary movement that has come to be known as Postmodernism. I think that this is the real tragedy as some great minds and authors have their roots in Postmodernity. But then again I can’t find the Wikipedia page for that so I can’t quote directly.

          1. James Joyce wrote as a Modernist, Ulysses, and as a Postmodernist, Finnegan’s Wake.

            I don’t believe Thomas Pynchon has gotten any recognition from them as well.

            1. Finnegan’s Wake isn’t postmodern, literature n00b.

      1. Tolstoy too. His really productive time was well before 1900.

  13. “After the Nobel for Literature was awarded to three people that aren’t libertarians they awarded a libertarian and my dick got hard” That’s basically the first sentence from Michael –

    Now mind you I like Mr. Mario but I also like Pinter and can’t help but not caring when I read “The Birthday Party” whether he supported old Slobo or had a blow up doll of Rothbard behind his typewriter…

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  24. LET JOANI AND FARINAS GO ABROAD, THEY WILL SAY WHAT THE SAY FROM CUBA: THEIR GENERATION WANTS TO PARTICIPATE, ???? ????? ??? ???????
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  25. 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.

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