The Nobel prizes were founded by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist who invented the dynamite. In his Will in 1895, Nobel directed that his vast estate be utilised to establish six prizes in different disciplines, including literature. The first prizes were awarded in 1901.
Today, the Nobel prizes are recognised as the most prestigious in the world. The winners not only achieve personal glory; their win also brings considerable national honour to their countries. For instance, Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 2004 shone a glorious light on Kenya, a country with a horrific reputation in human rights abuses, corruption and state-sponsored ethnic violence. She was in good company. The likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are members of that exalted club.
For several years, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been among the favourites to win the Nobel Literature Prize. But each year, fans of his works are disappointed. In past years, Ngugi’s failure to win the prize did not spark insults and intemperate accusations from his fans. They accepted the outcome, congratulated the winner, and expressed hope Ngugi would be luckier next time.
This year, however, when the Swedish Academy announced French writer Annie Ernaux the winner, social media erupted in outbursts characteristic of bar brawls, not scholarly discussions. Some said that the prize’s name should be changed to reflect its European bias. Others said Africa should have its own prize. Several were convinced Ngugi was passed over because of his ideological stance. Some said that the Swedish Academy was a racist institution.
All these comments lacked sober, scholarly reflection. Was Annie Ernaux a deserving winner? Had the Academy in the past awarded writers with radical ideological positions? Had the Academy used the Peace Prize to bring attention to marginalised voices and causes? Did the Academy fail to notice Abdulrazak Gurnah’s colour and nationality or his uncompromising anticolonial stance when it awarded him the Literature Prize last year?
Had these ideological brawlers just briefly stepped out of their cultural nationalist barroom, they would have noticed that some of the best writers in the world never won the Nobel despite being perennially on the list of those touted to win.
Anton Chekov, the master short story writer, never won the prize. Leo Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest writer in history, didn’t either. Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote Crime and Punishment, also did not. Was the academy Russophobic?
Mark Twain never won the prize. Neither did James Joyce who wrote Ulysses and The Dead. Heard of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four? Their author, George Orwell, never won the prize. Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence and Joseph Conrad never won the prize.
Does failure of these great writers to bag the Nobel proof of racial or ethnic bias against them by the Academy? The increasing intemperance of new-age radicalism is poisoning debate and discourse. We must stand up to it.