Nobel Prize

Taste Is Personal: A Primer in Nobel Prize-Winning Literature

The subjective theory of value in action.


Public Domain

Three Nobel Prizes have already been announced this week, and Thomson Reuters, which has "accurately forecast 35 winners since 2002," failed to predict any of the new laureates. The well-respected firm "mines scientific research citations to identify the most influential researchers in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and economics." Next week's announcement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences of the prize in Economics offers a chance for Thomson Reuters to save face. But even so prominent a handicapper, with a significant financial stake in the accuracy of its forecasts, dares not predict the winners of the prizes in literature and peace, which have been awarded since 1901. Why?

The Nobel Prize in Literature has a deservedly sketchy reputation among journalists, professors of literature, and professional critics. For every Samuel Beckett, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Gabriel García Márquez, whose Nobel triumph has thrilled book lovers and theater-goers, there is a Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, and Frans Eemil Sillanpää, whose shocking literary deification has left readers puzzling over an unfamiliar name and wondering whether it's time to once again change the prescription of their reading glasses. No doubt the regional and linguistic biases of the Swedish Royal Academy committee that select the annual winner explain a parochial impatience among Anglophone readers with obscure Nordic winners, instant literary celebrities with far too many syllables and diacritical marks in their names to generate veneration for their as-yet un-translated works.

If it's Quixotic for Thomson Reuters to predict with confidence winners of the Nobel prizes in the sciences, dismal or otherwise, then it seems utterly mad for anyone who reads novels, poems, plays, and memoirs, even professionally, to forecast the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. (Even predicting the winner of the Peace Prize seems by comparison a rational enterprise: simply identify a former or potential war-criminal, terrorist, or would-be authoritarian leader who has lately made nice with the world press). To be sure, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised by the Royal Swedish Academy press release. The stunning announcement last year that Mario Vargas Llosa had won the Nobel Prize for literature is a case in point. A Peruvian novelist possessed of precocious and extraordinary talents, Vargas Llosa was not considered a likely winner by journalists and literature professors. His controversial reputation as one of Latin America's leading champions of "neo-liberal" economic and political reform, his very public criticism of fundamentalist Islam, and his unstinting denunciation of the authoritarian government of Fidel Castro and his brother appeared to disqualify him as a serious candidate for the Nobel laureate.

And yet, is it so terrible that the committee members who select the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature annually exercise such predictably fickle, even perverse judgment? After all, it's been some time since any serious mind publicly claimed that literary criticism was a science, much less a predictive one. Since the rise of "aesthetic philosophy" in late 18th-century and earl 19th-century Europe, formidable attempts have been made by the likes of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and G.W.F. Hegel, as well their Scottish and English counterparts—Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—to articulate an objective theory of literary value and artistic taste. But their theories fell under the skeptical gaze of later philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche who dismissed the notion of scientifically and objectively verifiable literary value, indeed of all objective values. Rendered silent in 1889 by a debilitating stroke brought on by self-prescribed medicines to treat his stomach ailments, Nietzsche never saw the immense influence of his aesthetic and moral critique of objective ethical and aesthetic values. He never learned before his death in 1900 of the "marginal revolution" in economics begun in England, Austria, and Switzerland in the 1860s and 70s by William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Léon Walras. We can only speculate on what he might have thought of this epochal shift in our understanding of economics, a seismic event that the Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises recast as a more general "subjective theory of value" in the early 20th-century.

Oddly enough, mainstream literary criticism (leaving aside the vexed matter of whether the reading of novels and poetry these days can in any way be called "mainstream") and at least one increasingly influential, but still immensely controversial strand of economic science, agree that our tastes are a matter of individual and constantly changing judgment. As F. A. Hayek, a co-winner in 1971 of the Nobel Prize in Economics pointed out, the power of a government to centrally plan an economy is fatally compromised by its inability to know, anticipate, and account for the innumerable personal tastes of hundreds of millions of people, whose ever-changing needs signal to producers what they provide if those desires are to be most efficiently met. The subjective and unpredictable character of literary taste, which is deeply personal and subject to sudden, rapid, and unpredictable changes in cultural fashions, regional prejudices, and individual caprice, is a conspicuous and exemplary instance of the subjective theory of value and the glorious marginal revolution. We have returned to an insight of the ancients, who did not presume to offer a universal and objective theory of taste, culinary, literary, or otherwise: De gusitbus non est disputandum. "In matters of taste there can be no disputing."

So who will be this year's Nobel laureate in literature? I have no idea. Maybe the data-freaks and computer-modelers at Thomson Reuters will hazard a prediction based on their much prized and highly advanced scientific methodologies and protocols. But it seems likely they won't, especially given their track record this week. Surely that's a good thing for literature, not to mention for the economic and political health of world culture.

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  1. The list of those who haven’t received a Nobel for Literature are more significant than those who have. The same could be said for the Peace Prize, as well.

  2. The problem with the prizes is that they give them out too often. There just aren’t enough really distinguished people to give out the prize to someone worthy every single year. They should give them out every four years so the quality of the recipients would go up and it would be less of a tenure and money machine.

  3. The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize goes to Hillary Clinton for her selfless efforts to promote peace while flying a zillion miles around the globe, foregoing sleep and time alone with her precious family.

    1. They should give her the prizes for Literature, Peace, and Economics.

  4. Also, if you look at the list of winners, a shitload of them were clearly selected for political reasons. I think maybe 8-10 would be generally accepted as great authors on the merits of their work, versus their politics or identity group.

    No fucking Samuel Clemens, either.

    1. Rigberta Menchu winning ended any credibility the award had for me. And in fairness Twain died in 1910 so they only had 8 chances to give him one. They don’t give it out posthumously.

      1. Sure. One of the greatest authors on the planet of the entire preceding century. . .not good enough. Ditto that Indian dude who didn’t get the Peace Prize. What was his name? Khan something? No, that’s not right.

        1. Norman Borlaug deserved the peace prize more than any single person in the 20th Century. Funny how the leftist assclowns who give out the prize are convinced hunger and starvation is what causes wars but they never gave the Peace Prize to the man who saved the developing world from starvation.

          1. I vote for Randy Moss.

          2. No John, Borlaug was evil because he allowed big agribusiness to make profits on food production.

            /Actual argument as to why Borlaug saving a billion lives doesn’t matter by my uncle.

          3. Borlaugh did get the Nobel Peace Prize.

            1. Jesus, that’s right. I knew that.

              1. If there’s such an entity as a saint and there isn’t, but if there is, then Borlaug is a secular saint.

                He also had no time for the anti-human, anti-GMO scum.

                1. I’m still kicking myself for not pointing out that he did, in fact, receive recognition. Though the lack of real media focus on him seems kind of sad.

                2. And speaking of scumbags, read somewhere that Ehrlich was telling the Rockafeller Foundation not to finance Borlaug’s research that helped start the Green Revolution since, “don’t waste your money, they’re going to starve to death anyway and even if you do manage to save a few just more hungry mouths to feed, better just leave nature to take its course.

                  And the disgusting Ehrlick is lionized by the enviros and the man who probably saved a billion lives is relatively unknown.

                  1. One is worse than Hitler in his soul, the other better than Gandhi.

  5. My bet: Edna O’Brien get Literature, Paul Klemperer get Economics.

    1. Paul “Werner” Klemperer? “HOGAN!”

    1. Yes. Fuck prizes.

      1. there’s a prize for fucking? I’d be happy with 2nd place, even 3rd.

  6. Isn’t Lindy West writing a book? I’m just saying.

    1. Obama will win in 2017 for his seminal work, How I Fucked Up America on Purpose.

      1. And You Fell For It: The Official Memoirs of President Barack Obama

        1. Fooled You Three Times, Shame on You: Hillary’s Historic 2016 Campaign

        2. Obamageddon: All Your Suffering are Belong to Me.

  7. Having suffered through Alice Munro in high school, her Nobel Prize last year struck me as odd. She’s not a bad writer, but I think her appeal is fairly limited. Could have been worse though, they could have given it to Margaret Atwood, which would have been a bloody disaster.

  8. Arafat and Obama are prize winners. That tells you all you need to know about the integrity of the process.

    1. Don’t forget Al Gore.

  9. Michael Valdez Moses joins Paul Cantor as the only 21st-century literary critics who have heard of, much less read, Mises.

    I can’t fathom how hard it must be to be a literature professor while being an Austrian sympathizer. Most departments would rather you be an open Nazi than an advocate of praxeology.

  10. Datz rite, my man Owebozo gunna git da peas prize when he bring ebola to ya’llz azzes to git sum soshual justiz for all dem African muthafukkas who dun got dat shit!

    1. ^^Isn’t subjectivism great?

      1. Depends on your opinion, Randy.

        1. That is meaningless noise. If you guys truly believed that all morality and value judgment was subjective, there would be nothing to argue about, no claim you could make that would be any more valid (by your own premises) than someone else’s desire to enslave the world, or against anything else that you opposed. If X is subjective, there’s not much you can say about it that has any meaning outside your own skull. Subjectivism is solipsism.

  11. “In matters of taste there can be no disputing.” Apparently!

    Herman Hesse gets the Nobel prize in the late 40’s, particularly for “The Glass Bead Game” which celebrates the creative soul and community, and willingness of a noble spirit to give all for his truth.

    William Golding gets the Nobel prize a couple of decades later for “Lord of the Flies” which claims that man is a brute underneath a veneer of civilization.

    Go figure…

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