Friday 6 September 2013

The Nobel Prize and sexism

Writing in The Guardian earlier this week a journalist called Liz Bury (below) complained that '[s]ince 1901, a total of 109 individuals have won the Noble prize for literature, 12 of them women.'

Liz Bury of The Guardian

Any journalist who wants to make a point should also make an effort - it's the Nobel (not Noble) Prize in Literature, not "for", and it's supposed to be capitalised. But Liz Bury needn't worry about mere facts or professional finesse because she has right on her side. Her presentation may be slipshod but her case is just. Facts, nevertheless, still have their role to play so I did some research on her behalf for you, my thoughtful readers, and this led me to a surprising discovery.

The running total of Literature laureates since 1901, when the Prize was inaugurated, is indeed 109. The apparent shortfall in recipients reflects those years in which, for whatever reason, no Prize was awarded. Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf was the first woman laureate, in 1909, and here she is in a big hat:

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1858-1940)

She has yet to make her mark in the English-reading world but appears on Swedish banknotes and is, the internet insists, "most widely known for her children's book Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils)". 

The other eleven female laureates are a very mixed bunch, as follows:

1926 - Grazia Deledda

1928 - Sigrid Undset

1938 - Pearl S. Buck

1945 - Gabriela Mistral

1966 - Nelly Sachs

1991 - Nadine Gordimer

1993 - Toni Morrison

1996 - Wisława Szymborska

2004 - Elfriede Jelinek

2007 - Doris Lessing

2009 - Herta Müller

Apart from our own Doris, it's not a particularly awe-inspiring list, is it? Pearl S. Buck is largely unread today although The Good Earth was and remains a very fine account of Chinese life with no more than a whiff of middlebrow Orientalism. Sigrid Undset wrote an interminable trilogy called Kristin Lavransdatter which for some reason I read as a schoolboy, perhaps mistaking it for Lord of the Rings. I'm afraid to have to admit I've never heard of Deledda, Mistral, Sachs or Symborska (a Polish poet). Elfriede Jelinek? After seeing the film version I read The Piano Teacher, which I thought good, though not as good as the film. Gordimer I've never read, but then I've never read Alan Paton either and have no particular interest in South African writing. (One must have blind spots, like Ezra Pound who once told Hemingway "To tell the truth, Hem, ah've never read the Rooshians"). Herta Müller is Romanian and (I learn) "noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime which she has experienced herself." Toni Morrison? Please.

Liz Bury attributes too much weight to the Nobel Prize apparatus and its role in cultural endorsement. It clearly doesn't reflect literary merit because although Toni Morrison got it, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Ibsen and Henry James didn't. How on earth can it be taken seriously as anything more than a posthumous PR exercise on behalf of the man who invented dynamite? Each one of these male authors is, by any objective measure, more important and influential than the whole cohort of female literary laureates put together, but the Swedish panel of judges didn't think so, which tells you more about them than about the great writers they neglected to honour. 

But - and this is was my discovery - Liz Bury should have looked beyond literature to the other Nobel categories - Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Peace (all inaugurated in 1901) and the related Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (introduced in 1968). Between 1901 and 2012, Prizes in all six categories were awarded 555 times to 863 people and institutions.

Marie Curie (Nobel Prizes in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911)

Four of the recipients (including Marie Curie) won twice, so this makes a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations. But of the 835 individuals just 44 are female, around 5 per cent. Female authors, although dispiritingly few in number, are closer to 10 per cent of the total and therefore double the average. Liz Bury is straining at gnats and ignoring the camels.

It's as if women were somehow regarded - and not only by the Nobel committees - as second class, second rate and subject, if you like, to a prevailing male hegemony. Speaking as a gynocrat I happen to believe that women outclass men in almost every worthwhile field of human endeavour (sport doesn't interest me) so clearly we need to shake up the system. Perhaps a fair-minded solution would be to create (as in the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress) two Nobel Prizes each year in each category - male and female? Why not a Nobel Prize in Female Physics? 

Henry James - had no strong views on physics

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