There’s an interesting discussion going on right now about what exactly constitutes a Nobel Prize-worthy work of writing. According to the official site, Alfred Nobel’s original specifications were to give the prize to a writer who “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”
The question of what exactly this means was sparked recently when a researcher discovered in the Nobel Archives CS Lewis’s nomination of JRR Tolkien and the dismissal on the grounds that “the result has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”.
Predictable rant section: It’s no secret where my literary preferences lie, so I’ll try not to go into a long tirade, except that Tolkien’s critics, as usual, doth protest too much. Tolkien could have been rejected for the prize for a number of plausible reasons (as any author could – no one is perfect) but to say that he hasn’t achieved great storytelling “in any way” is willful ignorance of his profound effect on scores of readers and can only be attributed to either a lack of close reading or a knee-jerk dismissal of fantasy, or maybe both. As Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, it is (or should be) possible to concede worth in pieces of writing “on the testimony of others” whom one respects or by popular opinion. End rant.
For a balanced and reasonable (read: non-ranting) perspective from a noted Tolkien scholar, see John Rateliff’s post.
Inspired by this discussion, The Huffington Post has posted an article speculating on whether JK Rowling is deserving of the coveted prize. For the best perspective you’re likely to find, check out John Granger’s post on the implications of the above articles. Most thought-provoking is his suggestion that rather than honoring and elevating Rowling in the minds of the elite, she would actually be conferring worth and meaning on the prize itself to millions of readers were she to win the award. Not in any way likely, but fun to think about.
Some parting food for thought: How do you interpret Alfred Nobel’s criteria? Do Tolkien and/or Rowling deserve consideration, and why/why not? Do you see any chance of the committee considering writers of genre or “popular” fiction in the future? I’d love to hear your thoughts!