The politics of prizes

The news came yesterday that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There has been so much written about it already, an endless back and forth about whether songwriting is literature and, if it is, what that means for literature.

I find it hard to get angry about prize-giving. The idea that one person, or book, is simply and objectively better than all the rest seems obviously foolish. The idea that one person, or book, is absolutely undeserving of a prize seems just as foolish.

But this prize has made me sad and it took me a while to figure out why.

Last year’s winner was Svetlana Alexievich. I had never heard of her before, but I read a number of articles following the Nobel announcement and then read one of her books, Voices from Chernobyl. This is a woman whose work investigating, exposing and simply recording the tragedies of Soviet and post-Soviet history in Eastern Europe is intensely political. She had to leave Belarus because of what she was writing. Despite the size of the tragedies she writes about, the stories she tells are those of people whose stories do not generally get told. People get so easily lost within history and she gives them a place. By giving her a prize like the Nobel, it felt like the world gave them a place as well.

This year, I was looking forward to seeing whose stories would be illuminated by the Nobel. What part of the world would they open a door to? It was undoubtedly selfish of me to want the Nobel committee to give me someone whose work, and world, I could begin exploring.

I’m sad that this year we missed out on the chance of being introduced to someone who writes about people whose stories aren’t given much space or time or thought. I’m sad that for another year they will remain in obscurity because we are once again looking at white, middle-of-the-range America.

It’s not about deserving or not, it never really is with prizes. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of writers who might have deserved the Nobel this year and maybe Bob Dylan was one of them. But this year in particular, when diversity finally seems to be moving out of the tokenism of the early 2000s, I had higher hopes of whose stories might be chosen as a shining example of the best.


Freakily found quotes on the same idea. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare, oranges and apples etc, but I know who sounds more like a poet to me.