Literature is Liberalism

The Nobel Prize’s wish to separate literature from politics isn't just misguided. It’s impossible.

Last week, Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, promptly eliciting the expected reactions. “Who the Hell Is Patrick Modiano?” the Daily Beast indignantly asked. The Guardian’s Emma Brockes argued that several of Modiano’s peers — Philip Roth in particular — may have been more worthy.

But the Nobel committee does not just ferret out works that best exemplify the literary as an obvious pre-existing category. It is one of the most prestigious institutions engaged in constructing what constitutes the literary, and then working to universalize that construction as an unquestioned standard to which all writers should aspire.

This standard has varied somewhat since the prize was founded in 1901. But since World War II it has congealed into a model of liberal, humanist, idealist universalism, which tends to emphasize moral ambiguities, individual struggles with conscience, and avowedly apolitical commentary on world affairs.

Nor are its choices, and its way of explaining its choices, irrelevant beyond the literary field. The Nobel prize in literature is a mechanism for delineating the “serious” and “cultured.” Its doxa entails a purportedly non-ideological faith in the intellectual’s distinction from the social and the political, and suggests that only those who believe in this supreme separation should be taken seriously as thinkers.

The basic terms that the committee uses to consecrate selected authors are the most telling here. Orhan Pamuk’s “quest for the melancholic soul of his native city” is noted, J. M. Coetzee’s portrayal of the “surprising involvement of the outsider” is praised, and Naguib Mahfouz’s forming of “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind” is highlighted. These terms are constitutive of the standard liberal conception of the literary as an expression of the author’s unique ability to perceive the world clearly and truthfully. There never appears to be a structuring field of power or relations into which the work itself is placed.

The literary work is transcendentally above those, looking down on them, passing judgment on the petty squabbles of the local combatants. The work does not manifest, embody, or refract social or political relations. It always comments on them from some remove. So Modiano is celebrated because, though his work is mainly set in one European city, he has “evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.” Mario Vargas Llosa is prized for his “trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Doris Lessing has “subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny,” and Harold Pinter “forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

The implication is that art is able to comment on events in the world only to the extent that it can separate itself from those events. When the Nobel committee chooses a writer, they do not discuss his or her work as a manifestation of contradictory social or historical forces. They do not present it as a filtering and highlighting of particular social codes. Instead, they very clearly support the idealist image of the writer as a lone source and engine of creative innovations, as an expressive being whose authentic originality results in unique works of art.

So who exactly is doing the selecting? The prize committee is composed of mostly white men trained in European aesthetic traditions and convinced of literature’s unbiased, reflective moral purpose. They favor works that explore an individual’s psychic life in ways that are complex and ambivalent. They avoid emphasizing features of the work that could be perceived as explicitly political, meaning explicitly committed to the truth of a particular point of view about an identifiable problem that could be redressed by human actions.

From its earliest years, the prize committee has been devoted to championing writers defined by their neutrality in world affairs (in 1901, the first prize went to Sully Prudhomme for his “lofty idealism”), and that emphasis has continued in various guises. Currently, it often means celebrating authors whose work can be said to transcend local circumstances and comment on the broader human condition.

Using Pascale Casanova’s terms, to earn a Nobel prize is to ascend to world literary space, which is the space of autonomy removed from the forms of determination that ruin art. It is to leave behind all those underdeveloped literary worlds that are much too interested in, or informed by, political struggles.

Prize-winning work that does show an interest in such struggles – think J. M. Coetzee’s treatment of apartheid South Africa – expresses that interest in a particular way. It is work that is annoyed by what Timothy Brennan has called “the clichés of the postwar rhetoric of third-world embattlement.” It prefers to question or parody any sort of avowed radicalism. It is against violent resistance.

If the work is about “problems,” those problems are presented as ones that could arise anywhere. The writer’s relation to them is framed as one of contemplation rather than commitment. The contemplation’s quality is often guaranteed by the narrator’s or character’s or author’s feeling of living in permanent exile, estrangement, or alienation, and finding community only in the work of making art.

Modiano was born in France just after World War II, and he says his work is informed by the painful memory of the Holocaust and the German occupation. Recurring topics are tyranny, memory, and suffering. Like Modiano, others selected for the prize — winners include Seamus Heaney, Alice Munro, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Derek Walcott — are literary in a way that is recognizable to cosmopolitan audiences accustomed to a particular kind of sober, complex, ambivalent, “mature” literary expression.

This faith in the constitutive separateness of art from ideology is, of course, decidedly ideological, and it arises within particular historical circumstances. The transcendent, non-ideological sphere of border-crossing universal non-ideological endeavour serves transnational capital and its foot soldiers very well. The liberal literary object could not be more managerial, really: it is self-reflexive, self-involved, complicated, ambivalent, and pluralistic. Instead of fighting, it dwells. It is opposed to nothing except whatever can be construed as dogmatic opposition.

And, as it happens, ironic appraisal of any dogmatic opposition has been an important feature of the academic and popular reception of literary prize culture. This is part of what James English’s celebrated 2005 book The Economy of Prestige details. He argues that eschewing cultural prizes fails to threaten their critical and commercial centrality. Indeed, questioning the validity of prizes, or refusing to accept one, simply helps generate interest in the whole prize system and secure its ongoing relevance. When Thomas Pynchon’s publisher sent a comedian to accept a 1974 National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, the literati had weeks and weeks of material.

The same is true of other gestures of refusal or criticism of the commodification of literature. Controversy sells; our wariness about how controversy sells also sells; it’s endless. When writers refuse or query prizes they do not step outside of the whole system. Instead they may simply be solidifying their own value, given that so many critics and readers share their wariness about how prize decisions are made and what prizing writers is meant to achieve. Thus the only possible position is the ironic acknowledgement of complicity.

This is a basic feature of our literary world, and of the broader liberal sensibility in its current form: much value is assigned to signs that one is aware of being involved in things that might be considered troubling. But ironic acknowledgement of complicity, and resigned exhaustion in the face of the prize industry’s strange tendency to flourish the more it is criticised, are part of the literary field that should be the target of our inquiry. We will not get very far in understanding that field if we interpret literary prizes only as occasions for particular affects — affirmation, detachment, resignation, bemusement, etc.

The Nobel prize in literature plays a crucial role in circulating and universalizing liberal norms of originality, autonomy, and estranged, ambivalent contemplation. It enshrines Europe as the locus of cultural consecration, and makes a virtue of the intellectual’s practical ineffectiveness in the face of massive inequities. These are the prize’s basic features. They suggest the depth of affinity between liberal idealism and mainstream literary culture.

In the idealist mode that the Nobel committee supports, literature is an expression of humanistic liberalism, in which the genius writer, possessed of unique visionary abilities, examines the world from the outside, determines its realities, and presents them for our contemplation as art.

The alternative approach — and the approach that itself allows us to understand the Nobel’s position — is a materialist one that perceives art as principally shaped by the circumstances in which it emerges. Even literature that understands itself as apolitical is enmeshed in conflict and riddled with contradictions. The position of distant observation is not art’s natural purpose; it is a specific disposition that has been valorized for particular reasons.

Whether Modiano deserved plaudits from the Nobel prize committee is immaterial. More consequential than any individual winner is the committee’s misguided wish to silo off literature from politics.