Even many “literary buffs” hadn’t heard of Jon Fosse when he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature last month, says The Economist. He writes mainly in Nynorsk, a language used by around 10% of Norwegians, and his best-known work, Septology, proudly touts itself as a “radically other” reading experience. But the Nobel committee is used to criticism. The list of top writers who were never even nominated for the prize, let alone awarded it, includes Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. In its very first year, in 1901, the prize went not to Leo Tolstoy but to the French poet Sully Prudhomme, “a name as underwhelming then as it is now”.
This is because the judging process is, frankly, a “nonsense”. The winner is selected from all living authors, “writing in every language in the world” – all 7,000 of them. Judges are given just two months to whittle a shortlist of 200 down to a winner. And they must somehow adjudicate between vastly different types of work: “a book on the Sri Lankan civil war here and the inward musings of a middle-class American woman there”. But the biggest problem, as with any book prize, is getting the group to settle on a winner. After judging the Booker, Joanna Lumley said the “so-called bitchy world of acting” was a “tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing”.