Print Edition: October 16, 2013
Here’s a fun fact: the Nobel Prize is named after the inventor of dynamite.
I’ve always had it in my head that the Nobel Prize is the highest honour a human can earn, an idea I absorbed sometime between the ages of four and eight and nursed into my teens and twenties without really thinking about it.
There’s been an admirable amount of buzz around this year’s Nobel Prizes, especially considering all the other shiny objects in cyberspace clamouring for our attention.
However, for the first year ever, I found myself questioning if the Nobels are really worth, well, anything.
I should be pleased on a couple of levels with the choice of Alice Munro for Nobel Prize in Literature: she’s a woman, she’s Canadian, and she’s a short story author. The Nobel committee chose to honour three traits that are delicately but usually ignored in an author, which also happen to be three traits I identify with. Alice Munro suddenly finds herself as the postergirl for all sorts of niche areas of literature. Good for her! Good for all of us!
But while I greeted the announcement with the interest of an English major, the announcement also left me with barest aftertaste of regret that I probably couldn’t provide the title of an Alice Munro story if someone put a gun to my head.
It’s nice that the Nobel committee is honouring three categories usually away from the limelight with this award, but the cynic in me wonders if that’s all they’re doing.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a woman recipient,” one committee member speculates idly, spinning in his chair.
“Even longer since we’ve had a Canadian,” another chimes in.
“Have we ever had a short story writer?” a third demands.
“Done!” says the unofficial leader of the committee, leaping to his feet triumphantly and slamming both fists on the table. “Alice Munro! All three bases! No one can possibly criticize our choice this year!”
Of course, I’m not sure it’s possibly to award a Nobel Prize in any category without having at least a little criticism.
For instance, let’s talk about Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. Nominations closed before he’d been in office for two weeks. Are you telling me that he would have been nominated—let alone that he would have won—regardless of 2008’s election results?
Or might it have something to do with the fact that he’s A) so damn charismatic and B) the first black man to be elected President of the United States of America?
Other speculated nominees for Literature included Haruki Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates: setting these alongside Munro creates an eclectic collection to say the least. Can you really compare the short stories of Munro to the behemoths of Murakami, or, for that matter, to the housewife-popular works of Oates? It’s apples and oranges to the extreme.
To say that the marketability of Munro’s three oddball traits didn’t play at least a little bit of a role in the choice, I think, would be a lie.
Awarding it to a recognizable author with multiple marketable characteristics, after all, is hardly harming anyone’s image.
All in all, I’m weighing the scales in my head and trying to decide what the Nobel Prize is really worth. On one hand, it’s a way to bring attention to a person or organization that deserves recognition. On the other hand, I fear that the process might fall prey to the increasing pressures of the 21st century to be absolutely fair to everyone and everything.