A golden week: behind the scenes of the Nobel Prize in Literature, how is the winner chosen?

Secret. It must be a secret. The Nobels They are not the Oscars of the Hollywood Academy, where each category has its list of candidates and the public throbs the results with popcorn in a glamorous ceremony that they watch on TV. Partly because of that same mystery –50 years must pass for the rulings that reveal the composition of the final list evaluated by the jury to be declassified– Every October the same thing happens: a number of questions about the procedure for choosing the winners begin to haunt the date. Thus, from Monday the 3rd to the 10th, the top figures in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Economy will be honored, in that order.

So that no finalists or short list announcedalthough with a betting lottery spinning the usual raffle -by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and the French Michel Houellebecq and Annie Ernaux to the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the Canadians Margaret Atwood Y Anne Carsonand the Antillean Jamaica Kincaid-, it advances towards the moment of truth of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mircea Cartarescu and the Russian Liudmila Ulitskaya have also played in recent years. One could say that it is only conjecture… or leaks. The Swedish Academy was involved in a scandal of enormous proportions in 2018 when it became known that Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a member of the selection committee, was leaking information to journalists (even more serious was that he had repeatedly committed sexual abuse). That is why the award that year was canceled and two awards together -Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke- were awarded later. Since then -pandemic through- from Stockholm a communication has been reinforced to transmit the transparency of its actions.

In any case, the latest official and accurate information is that when in 2021 everyone expected that one of all these names would be inside the envelope, that of the Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah came out.

After the attack on Salman Rushdie in August, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy He said what many thought: that the Indian would deserve the Nobel Prize. “I can’t imagine a writer who today has the presumption of deserving it more than him. The campaign begins now”, he wrote in Journal du Dimanche. Nevertheless, the rules of the Nobel Prize for Literature He points out that the committee receives the nominations from September to February and that since May the jury evaluates a list of five finalists from which the winner emerges. Since those names are kept secret, it is not possible to know if Rushdie’s name, which was repeatedly considered, was already on the jury’s radar.

Ellen Mattson, novelist, member of the Swedish Academy and also of the Nobel Committee, explains in an illuminating interview published in www.nobelprize.org the procedure behind the election. “We have people all over the world who have the right to nominate: academics, critics, spokespersons for literary organizations, other academies. Also the previous laureates and, of course, the members of the Swedish Academy.” There are many names that they receive from all over the world, among which the winner of each year may be. Let’s call it suggestions. This 2022, for example, it transpired that with the signing of personalities from Latin America, the proposal of the Argentine Noe Jitrik was sent.

Nobel Prize in Literature awarded: 114. Number of winners: 118. Awarded women: 16. The youngest: 41 (Rudyard Kipling). The oldest: 88 (Doris Lessing)

“It’s a series of lists. We begin with a very long list of around 220 names: these are the ones that come from all over the world –reveals the specialist, who in her career has worked on several literature juries-. Then we have to navigate through this huge mass of names and there we need the help of experts. Finally, we get to a roster of about twenty and we go very deep until we can choose five that enter as finalists. That’s where the real work begins for us. The committee read all of these writers: reading, thinking about what you are reading, evaluating and explaining very clearly how you think about them, but also voting, we arrived at the candidate.

Theoretically anyone who writes outstanding literature can be nominated. “It has to be someone that when you read him you feel like there’s some kind of power, a development that lingers through the books, through all of his books. The world is full of very good and excellent writers, you need something more to be a Nobel. It is very difficult to explain what that is. It’s something you’re born with, I think. The romantics would call it a divine spark. For me, it’s a voice that I hear in writing, that I find within the work of that particular writer and no other,” Mattson continues.

The 2022 Nobel prizes are already waiting for their new winners, which the Swedish Academy will announce from Monday

The candidates are not defined by age either, but it takes a long time to be a good writer; sometimes all life. That is why, in general, the winners are not young. And although in some historical cases personal hypotheses were handled by which a great author practically undisputed as a writer -let’s call him Jorge Luis Borges- died without having the gold medal, in the Academy they ratify that the only thing that counts to reward a person is the excellence of his literature. “Doesn’t personality affect the decision to award a Nobel Prize? “Absolutely not”.

When the decision is made, it is the permanent secretary of the Academy who comes out to make a call. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to locate the winner and it may not be the right time of day or night to pick up the phone anywhere in the world. The truth is that this Thursday at noon, when the doors open again in front of a room full of international press, someone somewhere, closer or further from Stockholm, will be consecrating himself forever in glory and receiving a check for 10 million Swedish kronor (about $900,000).

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A golden week: behind the scenes of the Nobel Prize in Literature, how is the winner chosen?