Saturday, 18 October 2014

On the Nobel Prize

Before the French author Patrick Modiano won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, beating favourites Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Haruki Kurakami, the high-street bookmakers Ladbrokes offered odds on around forty contenders. Only five of those listed were female, the favourite being the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj at 7/1, while Joyce Carol Oates (16/1) and Margaret Atwood (33/1) represented the planet's anglophone women writers. That Bob Dylan was included on the Ladbrokes list (at 50/1) makes the bookies' tally of female writers even more unrepresentative of what's going on in the world of letters.

But before making any claims or judgements about such lamentable inequality and chauvinism let's look a little closer at the numbers.

The running total of Literature laureates since 1901, when the Prize was inaugurated, is 110, the apparent shortfall in recipients reflecting those years when, for whatever reason, no Prize was awarded. The first female Literature laureate was appointed in 1909 and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Swedish. Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf appears on the nation's 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 twelve subsequent female laureates are:

1926 - Grazia Deledda (Italy)

1928 - Sigrid Undset (Norway)

1938 - Pearl S. Buck (USA)

1945 - Gabriela Mistral (Chile)

1966 - Nelly Sachs (born in Germany, fled to Sweden in 1940)

1991 - Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

1993 - Toni Morrison (USA)

1996 - Wisława Szymborska (Poland)

2004 - Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)

2007 - Doris Lessing (UK)

2009 - Herta Müller (born in Romania, writes in German)

2013 - Alice Munro (Canada)

One can't read everything, of course, and I have to confess to near-complete ignorance of most of these writers, an ignorance that extends to many of their male counterparts - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray and Henrik Pontoppidan for instance. 

If it's difficult to recall all or most or even a few of these female laureates it's because the Prize, with eerie efficiency, seems to remove all trace of most recipients from collective memory. James Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Ibsen and Henry James never won the Nobel, although each of them is unquestionably more important and influential than the whole cohort of male and female Literary laureates put together. Compare them with (say) Toni Morrison, John Galsworthy and . . .  but you get my point. 

Between 1901 and 2012, Nobel Prizes in six categories were awarded 555 times to 863 people and institutions. Four of the recipients (including Marie Curie) won twice, so this makes a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations. Of those 835 individuals just 44 were female, around 5 per cent. Here's my point, for what it's worth: female Literature laureates, although still dispiritingly few in number, form closer to 10 per cent of the total and therefore double the average. Even more encouragingly, the decade since 2004 has seen four out of eleven prizes awarded to female writers. That's not enough, but it's something. 

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