It 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 This was supplanted with a focus on what it deems as “the great style” in the 1920s, which was again superseded by a concern for works with “universal interest” in the 1930s.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. ■