Nobel Prizes and traditionalism

James English had a wonderful piece in Public Books recently, discussing how the Nobel Prize for literature:

  1. Is a prize that has always struggled to be meaningful, given how its laureates are shortlisted, the capital that incentivises its exercise and the historical Eurocentric elitism of its adjudicators
  2. Had been irreversibly diminished by the controversies surrounding Jean-Claude Arnault and his apologist Horace Engdahl, and the disgusting “horse trading” that followed (Sara Danius for Katarina Frostenson)
  3. Had only made itself more interesting by having had its inherent politics and drama exposed to the wider world (“The Nobel Prize in Literature thrived in the 20th century not despite eruptions of outrage over the judgments of the Swedish Academy but because of them”)

What will it take for everyone to see that the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine work the same way? And that they don’t have to be assailed by public controversies to be acknowledged as imperfect prizes, whose status was seeded by a similar, if not the same, “admixture of capitals”.

There’s nothing to these prizes if not their prestige. But while that’s something any prize should aspire to have, it’s the wider zeitgeist of the Nobel Prizes’ appreciation that makes them interesting. Perhaps, as English argues, accepting this brokenness could pave the way to a more culturally appropriate celebration of what the prizes stand for, one that doesn’t quietly raise its glass to traditionalism on every December 10.