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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Politics of Literary Awards

     In 2011, the literary judges Sweden who selected President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize must not have foreseen the Afghan war escalation, the military intrusion into Libya, and the assassination of a U.S. terror suspect. It had been more than eighty years since an American had received the literary prize. If that ever happens again, the novel, poems or book of short stories will have to be extremely anti-American. Otherwise, forget it.

     As Anthony Arthur points out in his book, Literary Frauds, literary awards are lightning rods for controversy. Prominent in the history of the Nobel Prize are stories of writers who should have won the prize but were passed over. Arthur writes: "The Swedish selection committee had given the first prize, in 1901, to the mediocre Sully Prudhomme, over Leo Tolstoy, and the list of other great writers who have not won the prize included Marcet Proust, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad."

     While many writers scorn literary prizes, few ever turn them down. In 1926, Sinclair Lewis refused the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Arrowsmith, but only because he was miffed about not winning it earlier for "Main Street." Four years later, however, he accepted the Nobel Prize, becoming the first American so honored. In winning the Nobel, Lewis beat out Theodore Dreiser. Many American writers and critics considered his selection an insult, believing that Lewis had been awarded the prize because his novels were so critical of American culture. (Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw turned down a Nobel Prize.)

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