The Canonisation Problem

By Imogen Marchant

Abdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature – the fourth black individual to have done so in the prize’s history. With this comes the anxiety of becoming, in Gurnah’s words, an ‘eat your greens writer’ – someone who is read because one feels a certain degree of obligation. Along with the 10,000,000 Swedish Krona cash reward comes the knowledge that you have been identified as ‘good’. Actually, according to the Nobel Prize’s mission statement, you are now the author of that years’ ‘most outstanding work in an idealistic direction’. But what makes a work ‘outstanding’? And according to whom?

Questions of how to make value judgments about literature are not new, of course – they arise in Chaucer’s House of Fame, which places the fickle nature of Lady Fame at its centre. The exalted former authors (not including Chaucer’s favourite, Boccaccio, of course), are placed against the comely speaker of the poem, conveniently a somewhat satiric portrait of Chaucer himself. This is done to make the point that the grounds on which we elevate dead authors is inevitably shakier than we might think: we do not know exactly why past writers have had (in the case of the poem) the favour of the mutable Lady Fame bestowed upon them. Usually, in Chaucer’s case, it is because Lady Fame decided, without reading their work, that it would be so. Canonicity secured for some, and not for others, and all because of whim and chance. Today’s cultural discourse, with its renewed attention to the intersections of race, culture and identity, asks the same questions. Issues about the criteria against which these judgements are made arise with renewed urgency.  

Canonicity is secured for some, and not for others, all because of whim and chance.

Gurnah is indisputably deserving – born in Zanzibar in 1948, and a retired English professor from the University of Kent, he has been awarded the prize for his works’ ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism, and for the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents’.  He is in the company of household names – Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrisson and Samuel Beckett to name a few. Alongside the assimilation into a collection of writers thought to be outstanding comes the question of how they got there in the first place, and who decided that their position was so.

The Nobel Prize is essentially synonymous with canonicity – its inherent prestige has led to many authors being assimilated into a hypothetical collection of excellent writing. As with any awarding body, this designation goes hand-in-hand with a process of selection – works are judged by a group of awarding bodies, all with their own opinions on what the ‘most outstanding work’ might constitute. This selection process inevitably requires a degree of human bias, and a yardstick of ‘goodness’ reflective of the opinions of the awarding body is produced. It depends, of course, if you want to measure ‘goodness’ by ‘appealing to the most people in a room’. Typically, this means that work deemed collectively ‘good’ is usually equated with ‘most reflective of the experience of those in the room’. In traditionally white-dominated rooms (or awarding bodies, if you will) it means that selected authors are more likely to be traditionally white, or rewarded for presenting opinions palatable to a group of white individuals.  

Typically, ‘good’ is usually equated with ‘most reflective of the experience of those in the room’.

It also means that Gurnah, due to the relatively few numbers of Black winners, faces the potential risk of becoming a spokesperson for a monolithic Black identity: a black identity with a value measured by its proximity and palatability to whiteness. Those who choose to write in lesser-known languages, as in the case of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’ who writes in Gikuyu, risk losing elements of their work to the mercy of translators, and individual aspects of their authorial identity get lost. Thus, many wonderful writers can, conceivably, be missed in the process of selection.  

The Nobel Prize is not ignorant to these ideas, of course – the international outlook and investment in pioneering literature is its backbone. Derek Walcott, the winner in 1992, wrote in a mixture of Creole patois and English. Beckett wrote in French, Solzhenitsyn in Russian, Neruda in Spanish. It aims to highlight idealistic, boundary-breaking work, and if it were to amplify the voice of everyone, it would lose sight of this purpose. The issues come when the decision of the Nobel committee is taken as the single standard by which all literature should be measured. 

Image: Palfest via Creative Commons

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