I know, I know. Waiting to find out who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature is the theater of the absurd, on a small scale. The prize cannot validate our choices as readers; we read the writers
we read because we respond to what they write, not because they may win over a million dollars at the Nobel lottery. And the choices of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy have decidedly been, as Robert McCrum wrote last year, a "mixed bag." (I can’t find the actual column, but that previous link is a quote from the latest IHT piece on the prize.) There is the annual betting hoopla (check out Ladbroke’s for the odds or, if you like, answer the Newsstand survey!). Susan Salter Reynolds also has a wickedly funny and widely syndicated story on the mysteries of prize selection.
Read this excerpt about Elfriede Jelinek, the laureate for 2004, for example:
The 2004 choice of Elfriede Jelinek, the belligerently unreadable Austrian feminist, was even more controversial, and caused Knut Ahnlund, one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy (whose members serve for life) to walk.
"Degradation, humiliation, desecration and self-disgust, sadism and masochism are the main themes of Elfriede Jelinek’s work," he wrote in the conservative paper Svenska Dagblat. "All other aspects of human life are left out."
"If literature is a force that leads to nothing," [Horace] Engdahl [the Academy’s permanent secretary] pressed on, addressing Jelinek, "you are, in our day, one of its truest representatives." (Thunderous applause.)
And yet, here I am, waiting for tomorrow’s news. [I don’t know if I’ve written about this before, but one of the things I remember most vividly from my four months in the Star newsroom in 1991 is waiting at the wire bank to find out who that year’s laureate was, and which wire agency would spread the news first. It was Nadine Gordimer (by a mile), and Reuters, by a few seconds.]
I suppose the thrill lies in rooting for one’s writers, hoping that by some stroke of luck more people will discover what I have already enjoyed and continue to read: Kundera’s erotically charged political narratives, Updike’s magisterial criticism and wistful fiction (I much prefer the short stories), Wilbur’s unfailingly civil discourse and heightened rhetoric. And so on and so forth. Not all that different, really, from reading a book you like and then passing it on.