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The Power Politics of the Prize

The Nobel has long been about both politics and literature.

Michael C. Moynihan
October 8, 2010

After awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to the mediocre (Elfriede Jelinek), the talentless (Dario Fo), and the hugely overrated (Harold Pinter), the Stockholm jury this year bequeathed the award to the very deserving Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, praising “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

It is tempting to ignore the committee’s typically clumsy, jargon-slathered justification for their choice, but it contains an insight into how the Scandinavian cognoscenti views the political importance of literature. Jelinek, Fo, and Pinter (along with previous winners Günter Grass, Jose Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez, Heinrich Böll, Pablo Neruda, et al) were united by politics, a worldview which could be generalized as a deep hostility to capitalism and the United States. And like Vargas Llosa, all were viewed as championing a very narrow brand of “resistance” to the “structures of power.” (This usually means being opposed to U.S. hegemony, because Pinter, for instance, very much supported Slobodan Milosevic’s “structures of power” and García Márquez has long been a slavish Castro sycophant.)

Indeed, after the announcement of Vargas Llosa’s victory, The Guardian complained that the obscure African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o was overlooked by the usually Eurocentric committee. If you are unfamiliar with Ngugi, he is described by The Guardian as having “dedicated his life to describing, satirising and destabilising the corridors of power.” And as Ngugi’s British booster well knows, to take the prize home to Africa one must first attack someone deemed “powerful.”

Can one be a great writer, in the eyes of the Nobel committee, by choosing to not satirize the bourgeoisie? Or if one refuses to stump for some jungle-dwelling, Kalashnikov-toting band of peasant revolutionaries? Is it perhaps why Evelyn Waugh, one of the great reactionary novelists of the 20th century, a writer of colonialist prejudice who both celebrated and ridiculed upper class pretensions, was never rewarded by the Learned Elders of Sweden? It’s unlikely that a writer like Martin Amis, whose politics are often (wrongly) characterized as right wing and whose best novels have little to say about “resistance” to imperial power, would ever be considered. And it was long true that if a writer’s politics offended the Stockholm presidium, they could expect, regardless of the quality of their work, to be blacklisted.

The only thing shocking about Vargas Llosa’s award is that, though once a fellow-travelling man of the left, he has long since embraced classical liberalism, an ideology frowned upon in Stockholm. But the Nobel for Literature has always been a political award, a fact demonstrated not just by those who received the prize but also in those who were denied it.

Take the example of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer with a fondness for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. According to Borges biographer Edwin Williamson, the Nobel committee forever banished him from the shortlist after he paid a call to Pinochet:

“The visit to [Pinochet’s] Chile finished off Borges’s chances of ever winning the Nobel Prize. That year, and for the remaining years of his life, his candidacy was opposed by a veteran member of the Nobel Prize committee, the socialist writer Arthur Lundkvist, a long-standing friend of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1971. Lundkvist would subsequently explain to Volodia Teitelboim, one of Borges’s biographers and a onetime chairman of the Chilean Communist Party, that he would never forgive Borges his public endorsement of General Pinochet’s regime.”

Let’s unpack that: An academy member close to Stalinist writer Pablo Neruda—who, upon his death bed in 1973, praised the genocidal Georgian—denied Borges a Nobel because of his affinity for a thuggish, murderous dictator. Rather confusing, you must admit, but it's important to remember such anecdotes: Prize winners are not only politicized by pundits; the selection process itself is both cultural and political theater.

All of this political affirmative action was too much for committee member Knut Ahnlund. After the 2005 prize was awarded to Jelinik, whom writer Christopher Hitchens called “a mediocre Austrian Stalinist,” Ahnlund resigned, calling her work "whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography” that was chosen more for political than aesthetic reasons. Jelinik’s German editor defended his writer—and in doing so demonstrated Ahnlund’s point. “Ms Jelinek combines a highly cultivated and literary style with political concerns,” he argued, that frequently deals with “Austria’s past.” In other words, she already possessed the proper politics—she challenged power, after all—so why all the complaining?

Such political considerations once infected the economic prize too. Remember that Friedrich Hayek shared his Nobel with the socialist economist Gunnar Myrdahl, a move, according to the New Yorker, that “was seen within the profession as a political sop” to left-wing critics. And one cannot help but wonder if Vargas Llosa, while deserving, was something of a sop to those who complained about the number of lefty prize winners in recent years.

It was unsurprising that in Sweden the choice of Vargas Llosa was viewed through an ideological prism. Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest and dumbest paper, published a number of histrionic insta-columns ruing the choice. One writer called Vargas Llosa a “bitter anti-democrat who supports coup attempts” (sic) in Latin America. Another, trading in cartoonish Latin American stereotypes, called him “archly macho” and, further demonstrating a lack of familiarity with the region, remarked how odd it was that an intellectual from Peru could be a “neo-liberal.” Later in the day, another female writer huffed that Vargas Llosa was “anti-feminist.”

The dust has settled and, in the Swedish media, the attacks are still piling up. “I had to stop reading his latest novel,” complained an Aftonbladet columnist, “because the unthinking macho image of woman was impossible to endure.” Determining that to shout above the anti-Vargas Llosa din required ever more extreme charges, one columnist declared bizarrely that the prize was “a victory for the right and for the [far-right, anti-immigrant party] Sweden Democrats.” The whole debate, the newspaper trumpeted in a headline, was whether the writer was “an anti-democrat or a hero?”

And returning the idea of writer as one required to challange power, a Swedish journalist specializing in Latin American issues thundered that Vargas Llosa “has been more a voice for power than against power,” despite his passionate attacks against the depressingly resilient Latin American caudillo system. It is unclear if Vargas Llosa’s critics have read any of his novels (it seems doubtful, as one could not read Feast of the Goat, an attack on Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, as representing a voice “for power”), or are merely worried that their ideological hammerlock on the Nobel has been broken.

As left-wing culture critics in Europe breathe into their paper bags, denouncing this hideous Peruvian “conservative” who lives in European exile (i.e., he is inauthentic), it’s important to stress that Vargas Llosa’s politics are libertarian—he supports free trade, frequently quotes Milton Friedman, and is a supporter of drug legalization—and most assuredly not conservative.

In an interview with The New York Times, Vargas Llosa bristled at the label: “I am in favor of economic freedom, but I am not a conservative.” “Vargas Llosa is the opposite of a ‘conservative’ writer,” argues Enrique Krause, editor of Letras Libres, the intellectual journal founded by Nobelist Octavio Paz, “he is a liberal intellectual.”

It is unfortunate that the Nobel for literature is often more about politics then about worthy writing. But that’s the way it is. And this year libertarianism won.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Michael C. Moynihan is Senior Editor, Reason Magazine


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