The Nobel committee has reminded us of something important – the idea of a literary canon is seldom static.
One of the important things about the Nobel Prize in literature is its ability to divide people. Last year, for instance, when Belarussian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexevich won the award, the first question that arose was ‘Who is she?’ Going by the Nobel’s reputation, though, scampering to know the identity of the winner, has, in a way, become a tradition of sorts in the prize’s history. However, once the dust settled on this question, another one arose. How on Earth are we to classify a writer like Alexevich? Take her famous work Second Hand Time. Where does it fit? Journalism, oral history, part fiction – the book is all these in equal measure. This year with the Nobel Prize going to Bob Dylan, the same question of classification has arisen, but much more furiously. It has gone from whether Dylan was even fit to win the coveted award, to a far more existential question – in the event that a ‘songwriter’ has finally won what was considered unwinnable, where does that leave ‘literature’? And stemming from that, what now is literature?
To begin with, this question isn’t new. The idea of the sacredness of the canon has arisen earlier, most prominently when Stephen King was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts last year. Many critics of the writer came forward to claim that King, who writes primarily genre fiction, is not fit to receive an award whose previous recipients include greats like Ralph Ellison and John Updike. Let us extend this idea a bit further and imagine another scenario, yet implausible, wherein the Nobel has finally gone to a writer of genre fiction, King and Ursula Le Guin being the usual suspects. In that case, what do we make of literature? Literary critics like Harold Bloom and their lifelong attempt to create a canon of literature – of what should be considered great and what shouldn’t – has not only done more harm than good but is also, inherently, an attempt to dehistoricise literature, to remove it from its deep mass-based roots.
This award also signals to us another very important point – that the idea of a ‘literary canon’ is seldom static. Isaac D’Israeli, the father of Benjamin Disraeli and one of the great British writers of his time, wrote in his magnificent 1791 work Curiosities of Literature that “prose and verse have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats”. He concludes this essay with the following thought: “different times, then, are regulated by different tastes. What makes a strong impression on the public at one time, ceases to interest it at another and every age of modern literature might, perhaps, admit of a new classification, by dividing it into its periods of fashionable literature.”
D’Israeli was pointing primarily at two things. One, that any idea of an established canon is never outside the purview of history and second, because there is a particular historicity and the establishment of a literary canon is grounded within historical context, one can say that a canon is something which is arrived at and seldom fixed and is, thus, forever changing. The establishment of a literary canon then is very much a combination of multiple factors, such as changing societal mores and practices, aesthetics, forms of literary consumption and an institutional setup. The latter, which would include within it both pedagogy and the institution of literary prizes, go a long way in determining what a literary canon ought to be. The Nobel Prize in particular, since its very inception, has been at the heart of the evolution of the literary canon, a canon that is not bound by the strictures of geography or language, but one that has transcended both. By the time an author like William Faulkner, who right now is very much a part of not only American curriculum, but of the global literary imagination as a whole, won the Nobel, his novels were out of print and Faulkner had to seek employment elsewhere – Hollywood! Similarly, when Patrick Modiano won the prize in 2014, the first thing journalists and the general audience did was to Google the man. But subsequently, Modiano and his novels have become staple occurrences on e-retail websites, like Amazon, with newer editions of his works being commissioned.
But in order to understand the relationship that the Nobel Prize has had with the evolution of the literary canon, it is pertinent to at least, and very briefly, touch upon the historicity of the prize. To begin with, one of the important elements in determining who is eligible for the prize lies in the very description that Alfred Nobel left in his will: that the Nobel Prize in literature should go to those writers whose “most outstanding work is in an ideal/idealistic direction.” These words, ‘ideal’ and ‘idealistic’, have an interesting microhistory. After Nobel’s death, the great Danish literary critic, Georg Brandes, asked a close associate of Nobel’s what exactly the man meant by the phrase ‘idealistic tendency.’ Brandes reportedly received the answer that Nobel “was an Anarchist: by idealistic, therefore, he meant that which adopts a polemical or critical attitude to Religion, Royalty, Marriage, Social Order generally.” Moreover, Kjell Espmark, member of the Swedish Academy that awards the prizes, argued in his 1991 book, The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, that there can be a grain of truth in the above point, for Nobel himself was a utopian idealist, a staunch anticleric and a man who didn’t believe in established social institutions like marriage (Nobel never married).
Espmark does add a caveat, though, that one ought to interpret the word ‘ideal’ rather liberally rather than staunchly. And the awarding of the prizes has, in many ways, grappled with the changing interpretations of this phrase. For instance, as Espmark recounts, in the very first decade, the first chair of the Nobel committee, Carl David af Wirsen, interpreted Nobel’s statement to mean that the winner’s works ought to be of ‘a lofty and sound idealism,’ characterised ‘by a true nobility not simply of presentation but of conception and of philosophy of life.’ The end result? Radical artists, like Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, were never considered eligible. Ibsen was nominated thrice, in 1902, 1903 and 1904, but never won, Strindberg was not even nominated. In other words, this ‘Wirsian’ school continued with the idea of the established literary canon from the previous century, wherein importance was given to those who held an idealistic view towards reality, revered the idea of Christian conception. But of course, as time went by, received ideas of canon changed too, and with it, the Nobel. Therefore, we have people like Faulkner, Yeats, Thomas Mann and others who were radical in nature, being given the award. Interestingly, one radical writer the Nobel never considered was James Joyce, for he was still regarded something of an oddity and his stature increased only after his death.
With the award going first to Alexevich and now to Dylan, it is interesting to observe the newer territories the Nobel has started exploring, going beyond established ideas of what constitutes ‘literature’. It is moving beyond the purview of fiction and poetry, and into arenas that radically challenge the very definition of ‘text’. And although this decision has met with a lot of criticism, it is important to argue that by expanding the arena of what constitutes literature, the Nobel committee has not only made itself relevant to the newer generation’s understanding of literature, whose sensibility has already been informed to a large extent by the postmodern onslaught and an era where ‘literature’ has become co-terminus not only with music but also with cinema, but has ensured the debate over literary canon stays alive in the minds of the public in the foreseeable future. That in itself is cause to celebrate.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.