THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE will not be awarded this year. This hiatus—the result of allegations of sexual assault against the husband of a member of the Swedish Academy, which confers the award—will deprive us of more than just a winner. We will also miss out on the usual wrangling over who else deserved to, but did not, win. This is an annual, global ritual, and one with a surprisingly long history—seemingly as long as of the prize itself.
Take the case of Rabindranath Tagore. When he became the first Asian literature laureate in 1913, there were certainly many news stories extolling his poetry. Much was also made, though, of Thomas Hardy, the celebrated English novelist of rural life, being passed over. (He would never win.) The writer Gordon Ray Young, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, claimed that “the literature of the day abounds with work of splendid authors,” and provided a long list of poets, many now largely forgotten, who he felt were more worthy of the award.
Another controversial award came 25 years later, when the winner was Pearl Buck, an author who herself had an Asian connection. She was born in West Virginia but grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries, and later gained fame with a novel, The Good Earth, about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese farming family. Articles praised Buck’s skills and highlighted in particular her empathetic treatment of the Chinese protagonists of The Good Earth, then and still by far her most widely read book, which became a bestseller and inspired a hugely successful Hollywood movie. Other articles questioned whether Buck—the first American laureate and also the first winner with deep ties to China—was really a writer of the first rank. Some critics claimed that her work was more melodramatic, more middlebrow, or both, than a Nobel winner’s should be.