Culture

What are we to make of Louise Glück’s Nobel Prize?

Image: Louise Glück against a plain dark background, in black and white, via. nobelprize.org

The world’s most prestigious prize for literature has gone to Louise Glück, an American poet and adjunct professor at Yale, where she is also Rosenkranz Writer in Residence. Attempting to read the tea leaves of the prize landscape in order to detect swelling cultural trends is not uncommon in literary journalism, but the Nobel, being awarded for a lifetime contribution to literature and therefore to long-established figures, resists such analyses. The Nobel, rather, is seen itself as an institution that seeks to protect its reputation while sculpting tastes and maintaining the perimeters of cultural legitimacy. What, then, are we to make of Glück’s inclusion in the Nobel canon? The question would seem more intriguing this year than most, given the prize’s continuous press scrutiny following a series of blunders (chiefly, giving the award to the committee’s favourite musician from adolescence, Bob Dylan) and the MeToo scandal that postponed the 2018 prize. What was expected, then, of the committee this year, and what is to be understood by Glück’s win?

The award can be analysed both with reference to the state of literature-as-cultural-sphere, and literature-as-industry. Culturally, it avoids awarding the prize to a person of colour, as was expected widely following months of race-related protests, which emanated as global shockwaves following the killing of George Floyd in May. The bookies’ favourite, for example, was Maryse Condé, French chronicler of Caribbean colonialism. Such an awarding could have been distasteful and an example of moral trend-hopping; Condé, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, father of Kenyan and touchstone for modern African literature, having for long been deserved potential laureates. If they had won this year, the spectre of the Floyd riots may have Americanised a thoroughly Kenyan personal triumph in Ngũgĩ’s case, a French-Guadeloupean one in Condé’s. 

Glück is a deeply personal, even autobiographical artist, who ranges intensely within individual experience but does not touch on socio-political matters in ways that might ignite a conversation.

Also avoided by the committee is the form of politicisation that occurred last year, when the Austrian laureate, Peter Handke, was criticised for prior comments made in relation to Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav Wars (too complex to examine here, I will opine that Handke’s views are naïve but less contemptible than most of his critics; there was no good side in the tragic breakdown of the Yugoslavian state). Glück, by contrast, is a deeply personal, even autobiographical artist, who ranges intensely within individual experience but does not touch on socio-political matters in ways that might ignite a conversation. Politically, then, the committee avoids sensitive subjects and (admirably) resists any reactive attempt to use the award as a public relations opportunity.

However, there is the role of the Nobel in machinations of literature as a market, and as an industry, to be considered. Most academics will tell you that the Nobel Prize is essentially of interest only to book retailers, (notably, though, they will have harsher words for prizes further down the prestige tables) and that the Nobel as an institution is more powerful as a facilitator of the globalisation of European celebrity culture in the literary sphere than as aesthetic adjudicator. What literary-industrial move is made, then, by awarding the prize to this American poet? 

Glück (pronounced to rhyme with “click”), 77, has had a career marked by continuous critical acclaim, having won virtually every significant American prize for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, and National Book Award. Not a household name (these days, is any poet?), she was held at 25/1 odds for the prize, impressive for a white American, the demographic that won five years ago with Dylan. In some sense, getting the Nobel is just the culmination of the process of reward and acclaim that has marked Glück’s career. But in this respect, Glück’s win is also something of a farewell salute to a particular kind of writer. The number of elite poets of her reputation, age, and class/social position dwindles with each year. Anne Carson, the other white North American poetess heavily favoured for the prize, is a comparable figure. She has had a similarly laurel-wreath-bestowed career, also supplemented (as all top poets must nowadays be) through teaching at elite institutions. But there are only so many such opportunities for employment; were Glück born today, her talent may win her 2,000 twitter followers and an agonizing TA position at a state college, but it wouldn’t take her to the heights of international cultural cachet. 

Glück’s win is something of a farewell salute to a particular kind of writer. The number of elite poets of her reputation, age, and class/social position dwindles with each year.

In this light, the Nobel committee’s choice may be read as an encouragement to the bewildered and beleaguered Western poet class. Notwithstanding the roughly $1,000,000 prize money, the Nobel endows a level of fame – the most coveted currency on the planet – that can resurrect interest in flagging aesthetic forms and models (for example, the popularisation of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories following the 2015 prize). The committee this year, then, steps aside from sociopolitical concerns towards a refined aesthetic sensitivity, as shown in Glück’s Nobel citation: “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. This phrasing, however, is about as close to politically controversial as Glück’s award gets. With all the division and political chaos of the last few years, does anyone in 2020 truly believe the crude formulation that great art “makes individual existence universal”? And if it could, would an academic poet from the economically comfortable stratum of America be the one to do so? Lacking sociopolitical distinctiveness, perhaps Glück’s receiving the prize reflects a self-unaware morale-booster from the heart of the world literary establishment, a voice that cries, “it’s not over,” to an aesthetically sensitive portion of the reading and writing public that feels uncertain and underappreciated, wearied by hyper-politicisation. The next few years will clarify whether or not this year’s Nobel adds a healthy dose of aestheticism to the cultural discourse, or reflects the confused scramble for identity within what many consider a sclerotic and out-of-touch institution.

Categories: Culture, Literature

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