Mao China PosterIt has always been a convention with an old friend to ask me a question about the criteria for awarding international literary prizes every time we bump into each other. The winners for the Nobel Prize in Physics, for example, he said, are mostly honored for new discoveries in their field. It based on new developments in science. It is objective. What about those in the Literature category?

Well, the Swedish Academy, which is responsible for choosing the Nobel Laureates in Literature, does not make their deliberations public until 50 years has passed. As usual, I deferred answering the question to some indefinite time in the future. I didn’t even mention that the prize is generally awarded to those, as Alfred Nobel had it in his Will, whose works it deems as “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” and provides “the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Now that I finally have more time to think about this kind of thing, perhaps it is only appropriate that I try to finally settle the question.

The easiest way to answer the question would be to simply refer my friend to the Nobel Prize’s website. The history of the Nobel Prize in Literature is bared in a remarkable article by Kjell Espark. The vagueness of the text in Alfred Nobel’s allowed for several interpretations in approaching the choice of winners.

In its first decade of existence, the prize looked for outstanding writers with “a lofty and sound idealism.” This was supplanted with a focus on what it deems as “the great style” in the 1920s, which was again superseded by a concern for works with “universal interest” in the 1930s. From 1946 onwards, weight was given on innovative writers who “provided world literature with new possibilities in outlook and language.” From 1978 onwards, this was supplemented with an attention to “the unknown masters.” And following criticisms of bias towards the West, the Nobel became a prize for “the literature of the whole world” from 1986 onwards.

But what do you mean by literature with a “great style”? What gives literature “new possibilities in outlook and language”? I plead guilty to lack of competence to discuss these questions. What I will do instead is to provide a little digression that will perhaps lead us closer to the answers. Perhaps one way to understand the changes in the prize’s orientation is by owning a minimum knowledge of what literature itself means. We need to have an understanding of what it is that literature does. We have to define literature first and foremost.

So what is literature? Perhaps, to many, the answer may seem a self-evident one. What immediately comes to mind when one speaks of literature is a whole gamut of objects and activities. To speak of literature is to speak of poems, novels, stories, and plays. This seems like a simple matter of common sense. But what makes them literature? To adequately address this question, allow me to recap a part of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: an Introduction, one of our reference materials in our literary theory class. The book begins by asking the same question.

Literature, for Eagleton, is not simply imaginative writing. On the one hand, not all literature is fictional. Many literary forms are not simply texts that tell about imaginary happenings or people. Poetry and literary essays, for instance do not fall in this category. On the other hand, many texts that are fictional are not considered literature. Why are Charles Dickens’s novels or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere considered literature and Harlequin Romance pocket books are not?

Another way of defining literature is to see it as, in the words of Roman Jakobson, an “organized violence committed on ordinary speech.” Literature for the school of Russian Formalists is simply language used in a particular way. It is language that stands out, language that is estranged from ordinary speech, like say, a line from Shakespeare.

But not all foregrounded language is literature. Advertisements and tongue-twisters use language in a special way. And as we already know, most novels use ordinary language. What we call “literariness,” or qualities thought to belong to literary works, are also found in texts situated outside the category of literature. It is the context which tells you that something is literary or not.

In keeping up with the times, literature could also be seen as a self-reflexive construct. It is a language which talks about itself. And indeed, many works are made to be read as literature. However, a text may start as a work of philosophy or history but eventually becomes treated as literature. We have for example Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, which began as an incendiary political tract but is now considered a classic work of literature.

How a text is treated is hence the ultimate determinant of what literature is. Literature to be such has to be considered valuable, and value is not objective. But one cannot simply say “this is literature” and it will automatically be considered as one. What we consider as literature, as Mao would have it, is bound by social practice. Our modern conception of literature is, in fact, barely two or three centuries old. The determination of a text’s value is ideological. Literature, for Eagleton, cannot be divorced from the beliefs and practices that illuminate the struggle for the reproduction or transformation of definite societal power structures and social relations among people.

Literature, therefore, is simultaneously both language with special qualities and the product of social practices or conventions. So yes, to go back to my friend’s nagging suspicion that the awarding of literary prizes is a subjective affair, literary awards are never totally objective (like most things in the world). The Nobel Prize is one institution which shapes our understanding of what “good” literature is according to the literary conventions of our times – conventions that follows and affects the contradictions and transformations of our societies in general. ■



  1. indeed. quite a time to answer an innocent question :-)

    but from your answer, a question seem to bother me:

    would it not be possible then for a work that deconstructs, either by saying or by showing, the tenets laid by Nobel, to actually win the Nobel Prize for Literature? :-)

    1. Dada,

      If by “a work that deconstructs […] the tenets laid by Nobel”, you take to mean a text which unravels how certain elements within Nobel’s Will actually subvert these tenets’ presupposed “essential” object, then why not? But then again, I’m not part of the Nobel Prize Awarding Committee (or whatever they call that group) so the real answer is one big “I don’t know.” I think they have this Q&A section in the Nobel Prize website. Perhaps we can forward this question there. :)

      1. :-)

        not just to unravel but to usurp, chopping the trunk down one by one towards the roots.

        but yes, why not ask? I will ask. :-)


  2. Great post! Yet, I had to refer to the few remaining books on my shelf to find other insights concerning literature. But even Mao nor Lumbera failed to enlighten my already un-analytic mind (too much alcohol in-take perhaps).

    Nevertheless, I’d still go to Mao’s admonition that “all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above all classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics”. Even the “Nobel” institution itself is influenced by the prevailing international, economic and political, conditions.

    Hence, the Nobel Prize itself is not as reliable and consistent as we see it. Although it can indeed serve as an “institution which shapes our understanding of what “good” literature is”, it really depends on “for who” did the recipient of the award write for. That, I think, should be the primary criterion in “awarding international literary prizes”.

    1. Kiko,

      Thank you for the reiteration of my post’s conclusion. Indeed, literary institutions like the Nobel Prize can never be divorced from prevailing conditions in the political, cultural, and socio-economic sphere. What this “good” literature is depends in the last instance on social practices and the matter of who determines this social field (my God, how many really outstanding writers – from Tolstoy to Borges – did the Nobel miss?). The question, “for who?”, therefore, is one lens (and a very good one at that) from which we can view a writer and his oeuvre. But then this also opens more questions which, unfortunately, I am not competent enough to discuss, but of which I will touch briefly here.

      Do we, for instance, address the question “for who” to the intention of the writer? Put simply, there are times when you intend to express a but what I actually said means b: a situation wherein the meaning of the utterance is divorced from your intention. The Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls, for instance, is often cited as a satirical attack on the exploitation of the serfs in what was then feudal Russia. But if we look back in history and examine “for who” Gogol really wrote for, we will see that the reading of Dead Souls as an attack on unjust social realities depressed Gogol himself since he saw himself as a loyal subject of the Czar, was on the side of the social order, and thus never intended his work to be perceived as such.

      On the other hand, will good literature simply be defined as writings which answer the question “for who” correctly? Is there any role for the mastery and innovation of literary forms, the exploration of literariness, et al in such a scheme or will it simply be a matter of following a correct political line or intention for the creation of literary works? Anyhow, I hope I can read and read and read more on this matter soon. Once again, thank you for the wonderful response. :)

  3. “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

    1. Daniel,

      Thanks for the great quote. Sartre perfectly sums up the paradox of literary production: to create literature – to write a novel, for example – is to follow certain rules, certain conventions; but then it is also about going beyond these conventions, it is also about creating new possibilities in the sphere of expression, or however one should call it. :)

  4. Great piece, Karlo. All literature, I guess is a rendition of a certain human condition in a certain aesthetic the writer can experience; and all great literature universalizes itself by making its aesthetic sharable across time and space of humanity. Again, very impressed by your blog.

  5. Reading this post and comments, I am painfully reminded of a pet peeve. I blame this continual dyspepsia on Yeats, as I shall explain below. I refer to the offensively demotic, and nearly ubiquitous tendency to pluralize what should clearly be singular indications of direction. Do we ever say rights, lefts, norths, souths? We do not, with the possible exception of scoring a boxing match. To do so would be utterly risible. Why, then, oh why this universal penchant for towards, onwards, upwards, backwards, even forwards? It is absurd, if one stops to think of it. I am willing to concede “sideways,” as I like to think of it as an s ending singular, in the same vein as politics and kudos.

    As I said, I blame Yeats and his most famous phrase from “The Second Coming”—slouching towards Bethlehem. Curse you. Would that you had been named “Yeat.”

  6. Karlo, I just wanted to say thank you for this wonderful article. You should consider publishing it so more people can enjoy it. I am looking forward to reading more posts from you.

    Kind regards,

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