Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Thirteen Nobel Women of Letters

and the Relativity of Statistics

Yesterday, like every year on 10 December, the five Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace along with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (endowed by the Sveriges Riksbank, not the Nobel Foundation) of the closing year have been awarded in Stockholm and Oslo respectively. The names of the laureates of 2013 had been made public already two months ago and it goes without saying that I as a book lover had been most curious to know who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s always interesting to see which writer’s work the Swedish Academy considered as sufficiently outstanding “in an ideal direction” to deserve the prestigious award. Since 1901 probably hundreds of authors have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and 110 of them (108 not counting Boris L. Pasternak and Jean Paul Sartre who declined the award) actually received it: 97 men – and 13 women. 

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature is the Canadian writer Alice Munro who for health reasons excused herself from attending in person at the splendid ceremony in Sweden. The “master of the contemporary short story” also declared in October that she would retire from literary work – although by now she is wavering already. Her long career as an author began in 1968 with the much acclaimed and award-winning short story collection titled Dance of the Happy Shades which was followed by a great number of short stories printed in renowned magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review as well as in several collections. Her latest published work is Dear Life (2012). The latest of her original short story collections are Too Much Happiness (2009), The View from Castle Rock (2006), Runaway (2004), and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001; including the story The Bear Came Over the Mountain on which Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her is based).

When Alice Munro was officially announced as this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, almost everywhere special attention was called to the fact that in the course of 113 years (minus seven years when the Nobel Prize wasn’t awarded) she is only the thirteenth woman of letters being honoured by the Swedish Academy for her literary work. Of course, the statistics are right, but what does it mean? Time didn’t stand still during all those years and our society of today isn’t the same as it was in 1901. To me it seems unfair to lump together the first half of the twentieth century and the years of the new millennium. We need a more differentiated look at the statistics. 

In fact the past ten years alone have seen four female recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature including this year's winner Alice Munro. The other three were the German-Romanian author Herta Müller in 2009 (see my review of The Passport), the recently deceased British writer Doris Lessing in 2007, and the Austrian novelist, poet and playwright Elfriede Jelinek in 2004. I’d say that four women to six men is quite a good ratio considering the situation in today’s literary business which still seems to be very much in favour of male authors (see also my post Women Writers). The picture is less balanced and at the same time more realistic, if we look at all the 2000s: four women and nine men. Taking the last 25 years as statistical basis, there are three more women writers who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They are the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in 1996, the US-American novelist Toni Morrison in 1993 and the South-African author Nadine Gordimer in 1991. Seven women writers (almost half of all 13!) are up against 18 men. 

On the other hand, the 45 years between World War II and 1988 have been a rather bleak period for women of letters. The German-Swedish writer Nelly Sachs in 1966 and the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral in 1945 are the only two women among 45 (43 without Pasternak and Sartre) literary men who were thought worth of receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. The interwar period definitely has been a better time for female writers. From 1919 through 1939 three of the twenty Nobel Prize laureates were women, i.e. the US-American writer Pearl S. Buck in 1938, the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset in 1928 (see my review of Jenny) and the Italian novelist Grazia Deledda in 1926. The first female recipient ever of the Nobel Prize in Literature was the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf in 1909, the only one among 17 male recipients until 1917. 

My analysis of the statistics of the Nobel Prize in Literature shows that times have changed in favour of women and that at present we don’t have any reason to stand up against discrimination in Stockholm. After 113 years female writers seem at last to have equal opportunities of winning this important award. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case everywhere in the literary business, but women like me are working on it. Many of us write excellent literary fiction and continue the battle against prejudices evoked by the simple fact that we have female given names. Clear-sighted and courageous editors/juries, on the other hand, are still wanted in many places. 

For reviews of works written by Nobel Prize laureates I recommend Read the Nobels where I reblog my suitable reviews every once in a while.

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