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New Left Review 104, March-April 2017

jennifer quist


The Swedish Academy’s Praise for Its Prizewinners

Pascale Casanova has described the Nobel Prize for literature as ‘a unique laboratory for the designation and determination of what is universal in literature’. It is a setting where global interests converge, ‘one of the few truly international literary consecrations’. The annual award by the Swedish Academy may also serve to indicate, Casanova suggests, the existence of a world literary space riven by structural inequalities—the polar opposite of ‘literary globalization’, understood as a peaceful and progressive homogenization process. [1] Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, nlr 31, Jan–Feb 2005, p. 74. The metaphor of the Nobel Prize as a laboratory for determining the canon is a striking one; its role in the standardization of literature and language, within a radically unequal literary world, has yet to be defined. Literal laboratories yield literal data—figures, tabulations, measures of a central tendency. In the study of world literature, we cannot marshal real-world test tubes or microscopes to discern the cultural and aesthetic assumptions driving the canon’s formation. However, working within figurative laboratories, we can apply methods of content analysis to yield qualitative and quantitative data that can be weighed and measured, helping us to track the movement of cultural capital through world-literary space. By analysing the official statements, bio-bibliographical sketches and award citations of the Swedish Academy, treated here as data to be counted and sorted, it may be possible to discern the tacit criteria—the political and cultural biases and values—underlying the annual consecration of Nobel laureates and the canonization it implies. [2] The formal processes of the Nobel Prize for literature are well-known. Each fall, the four- or five-member Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy invites nominations for the prize from some 700 ‘experts’—literary scholars, heads of national writers’ organizations—from which the Committee selects a shortlist for consideration by the Academy, an eighteen-strong body of writers and academics, which awards the $1m prize.

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Jennifer Quist, ‘Laurelled Lives’, NLR 104: £3

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