The decision to bestow the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature on the Chinese novelist Mo Yan raises once again the ticklish question of the patterns of distribution for these laurels at the global level. In almost every country, of course, the awarding of literary prizes has typically been contaminated by national politics, the formation of literary cliques, religious convictions, racial prejudices, double standards and the ideologies of the period. Is this the main reason why, over the 110 years of announcements of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, there has never been an awardee from any country in Southeast Asia—while every other region has had its turn?

The history of the Prize can be divided into three parts: the era of world domination by Western European powers, the Cold War and the contemporary era of globalization. During the first period, between 1901 and 1939, almost all the prizes went to writers from Western Europe, ranked in the following order: six for France; five for Germany; and three each for Sweden, Italy, Norway and the usa. Britain, Spain, Poland, Ireland and Denmark had two apiece, and there were solitary representatives of Belgium, Finland, Russia, Switzerland and India (see Table 1, below). Regional favouritism was then quite clear—Scandinavians took one third of the prizes. But among them only Norway’s Knut Hamsun was a world-class author. Tagore from colonial India was an interesting oddity, the only prize-winner (1913) ever to represent a colony, and Asia’s solitary ‘star’ until 1968, when Japan’s Kawabata was successful. Americans only began to win in the turbulent 1930s, two of them after Hitler came to power, and their calibre was quite low. At the same time, one important European country was spectacularly discriminated against: Russia/ussr. Prior to Lenin’s revolution, the discrimination was based on Sweden’s traditional rivalry with, and dislike of, imperial Russia; after 1919, Communism became the key factor. Characteristically, the only Russian winner, Ivan Bunin, lived in exile in Paris. In the last years of Tsarism, the ancient giant Tolstoy was ignored, maybe because of his radical ‘anarchist’ political stance, along with Chekhov and the poet Aleksandr Blok. Later on, the great playwright Bulgakov, the poets Mayakovsky and Mandelstam, and the novelists Gorky, Andreev and Zamyatin were all passed over.

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The Nobel Committee is made up of five members of the eighteen-strong Swedish Academy, a self-perpetuating body of royal creation whose members serve for life, with the primary duty of enhancing the ‘purity, vigour and majesty’ of the Swedish language. The Committee prepares a shortlist drawn from the nominations of relevant academic and professional literary bodies around the world, and from the Academy itself and its living laureates, for an eventual majority decision of the eighteen members in plenary session. Unsurprisingly, then, the Academy’s literary taste was usually conservative. Its members had no time for Surrealist poets or great experimental modernists like Proust, Joyce, Musil, Brecht, Rilke, Cafavy, Benjamin, Roth (Joseph), Woolf, Lorca, or Sweden’s own ‘shocking’ playwright August Strindberg.footnote1 Nobel’s testamentary dedication to work of an ‘ideal’ or ‘idealistic’ leaning disqualified some of these, and others such as Ibsen or Zola, Hardy, Lawrence or Dreiser—and at the same time helped to shape one of the most mediocre genres of twentieth-century literature, the Nobel citation itself, with its vapid humanism rendered in accumulations of cliché that would disgrace the literary pages of a self-respecting provincial newspaper. In addition, one has also to reckon with the fact that in those years the Committee’s linguistic competence was quite limited, and translations of modern literary works from non-European languages were very few. This structural hindrance surely explains why China (Lu Hsün, for example, or Lu Ling) and Japan (Sōseki, Akutagawa, Tanizaki) were not plausible candidates for the prizes.

The Cold War era exhibited quite different patterns. No prizes were awarded between 1940 and 1943, the decisive years of the Second World War. But from 1944 on, the Committee was inevitably affected by the collapse of European imperialism and the struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States for world pre-eminence, which divided Europe into two hostile blocs. Colonies could be ignored, but independent new nation-states, seated in the un General Assembly, could not. Europe’s pride in its cultural superiority over the ‘provincial’ usa, in the new era of its own political and economic decline, led to a greatly enhanced desire—especially in London and Paris—for the translation and publication of important literary texts from outside Europe. Meanwhile Sweden’s position and outlook were quite different from the pre-war years. The country had stayed neutral between the Axis and Allied powers, while Denmark and Norway were occupied by Nazi armies, and this neutrality earned the contempt of the Allied victors of 1945. The horrors committed by Hitler’s regime in the name of racism and Aryan superiority greatly undermined the prestige of right-wing nationalism (including right-wing literature) all over Europe. During most of the Cold War, Sweden redesigned its neutrality in important new ways. The country developed the most advanced social-democratic society in the world and tried to present itself as offering a third possibility between ruthless American capitalism and ruthless Soviet state socialism. Approaching the ‘Third World’ states was a good way to build Sweden’s new reputation as a moderately left-wing, peace-loving country, especially productive of top officials for the un.

Between 1944 and 1991, fifty Nobel Prizes for Literature were awarded, and their distribution was quite different from that of the previous era. Fifteen countries had won prizes between 1901 and 1939, but twenty-eight were successful during the Cold War. France, with six winners (though Sartre turned it down), was still Number One, but only narrowly. Next came the us with five, the uk and the ussr with four each; Sweden, Germany and Spain with three; and Italy, Chile and Greece with two. Single champions came from Poland, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Yugoslavia, Israel, Guatemala, Japan, Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Czechoslovakia, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and South Africa. In this listing one can see that the pre-war Scandinavian bloc had drastically declined. On the other hand, Stockholm’s gaze now extended to East Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America, Africa and Australia—only Southeast Asia was still invisible. The Committee’s politics had changed in some important ways. The first thing to notice is that it discriminated against right-wing authors: Céline and Malraux in France, Borges in Argentina, Mario Vargas Llosa (only forgiven in 2010), Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, for example. The ridiculous exception was Winston Churchill. On the other hand, independent leftists such as Sartre, and even communists like Neruda, were all right, just so long as they didn’t come from the ussr or the prc. Sholokhov’s was an isolated case, coming just after the relative thaw of the Khrushchev years: the other three Russians were dissidents and/or exiles.

The other major change was the comparative status of languages. In the pre-war world, German, French and English were the prestige languages in real life and in ‘world literature’. But after 1945, Germany was split in two, and Germanophobia was everywhere. The linguistic prestige of France was in a slow decline. ‘English’ in its various forms was becoming the overwhelming world-hegemon. It is striking that although France remained the top prize winner, none of its champions came from the ex-French overseas empire in Indochina, West Africa, the Maghreb or the Caribbean. On the other hand, the British dominions and former colonies did very well: White for Australia, Beckett and later Heaney for Ireland, Soyinka for Nigeria, Nadine Gordimer (and later Coetzee) for South Africa and ultimately Derek Walcott for the British West Indies (Saint Lucia). Writers who went into exile in, or migrated to, the us and the uk also wrote in English—Miłosz, who had defected to the West thirty years before receiving the prize; Brodsky; Canetti, who had left Bulgaria for Britain at the age of six; and so on. One continuity with the previous era, however, was the overlooking or ignoring of authors whom today’s critics from many countries greatly admire: for example Japan’s Abe Kōbō, Russia’s Nabokov and Akhmatova, Anglo-America’s Auden and the uk’s Graham Greene.

In the almost quarter-century of the post-Cold War era we can see some interesting novelties. First, the end of French authority (one prize), American hegemony (one prize), Russian prestige (no prize). One-time winners have been the Anglophone West Indies, the us, Japan, Poland, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, South Africa, Austria, Turkey, Ireland, France, Peru and . . . Sweden. The exceptions are a revived Germany (two prizes: Günter Grass and Herta Müller, though not Hans Magnus Enzensberger) and China (two, with Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian—though the latter, winner in 2000, had settled in France by the late 1980s). The uk was in the lead, with three prizes—but of the British winners, only Harold Pinter has been a native, while V. S. Naipaul hails from the West Indies and Doris Lessing grew up in Rhodesia.