In 1984, I fell into conversation with David Brin while pouring over the books in a science fiction convention’s dealers room. He suggested one book, reminding me that it had won the Nebula Award, and I said, “Oh? Was that back when the Nebula meant something?”
Abruptly, I remembered that Brin had won the Nebula Award a few months ago for Startide Rising. I made some strangling noises of embarrassment and stammered out an apology, and he was gracious enough to say, “That’s OK. I used to feel the same way.”
I still flinch at the memory, but not the sentiment. The truth is, with all respect to Brin and many other deserving winners, I’ve never cared for literary awards of any kind, even though once or twice I’ve served on awards committees myself. The recent news that Tolkien’s prose was dismissed by the Nobel Committee in 1961 as having “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality” only reinforces my dislike.
For one thing, technical merit is only one consideration in a literary prize. If nothing else, few awards have any provision for nominating nothing in a given year, and those that do are under heavy pressure from publishers and booksellers to avoid using it.
Moreover, while an award can sometimes be made entirely on technical merit, especially in its early days, or when its jury is hidden, too often nationalism, friendship, and professional interest interfere. For instance, the Nobel Committee has been under pressure for years to see that non-European writers are better represented among the winners. At times, deserving writers have been passed over as too old.
In such circumstances, the criterion of excellence threatens to become compromised. Yet this simple fact can never be admitted. Instead the pretense that the award is completely for excellence is kept up, and the selection process becomes an exercise in hypocrisy. The most that a conscientious member of the jury can hope for is that the eventual award winner isn’t entirely unsuitable.
Fortunately (for the jury members, if not the reading public), such winners aren’t hard to find. Beyond a certain standard of quality, it is frequently impossible to claim in any meaningful way that one writer is more skilled than another, because they have such different goals artistically.
For instance, if you look at well-known 19th Century writers (whom I’m choosing because the canon is much more established for the writers of over a century ago than for living writers), you might just be able to compare meaningfully George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, because they share an interest in psychology.
But how do you compare either one to Charles Dickens? To Charlotte Bronte? Jane Austen? Mark Twain? Henry James? As soon as you ask yourself by what criteria one of these is considered a better writer than another, the whole exercise becomes absurd. The best you can do is point out what one of these writers tries to do that another doesn’t. But these differences don’t mean that one is better than another, any more than differences in physiology prove a cat a superior animal to a dog.
And when you’re dealing with modern writers, the task is even more difficult. With most modern writers, no one has observed what they are good at. Instead, jury members are thrown back on their own powers of observation, or – more likely – upon the perceived wisdom of their generation’s academics and critics.
That, I suspect, was what happened to Tolkien in 1961 (to say nothing of Graham Greene, Karen Blixen, and Lawrence Durrell, all of whom are now recognized as major literary figures). If you take Tolkien on his own terms – as a writer whose important influences are a mixture of Old English and Medieval traditions, popular ballads, and oral storytelling, and as a writer of epics rather than novels – then he is an excellent writer of his sort.
However, in 1961 (and still, to an extent today), none of Tolkien’s influences or intentions were recognized by academics and critics as worthwhile. Tolkien’s tradition is plot-based, and its social observations are metaphorical where they exist at all. He has little psychological perception, even less social realism, and, generally speaking, none of the virtues prized in a modern serious novel.
Under these circumstances, how could the Nobel Committee possibly appreciate Tolkien? Its members would have been like people who are color blind trying to appreciate a painting in which subtle changes of hue are a major element. With the best will in the world, they couldn’t appreciate Tolkien – and, backed by the official opinions of their times, they probably didn’t see any reason to try very hard, either.
Literary awards may be popular with publishers and booksellers, because they can mean increased sales. Yet I can’t help noticing that very few writers of any stature take them very seriously. In fact, in my experience, the more acclaimed a writer is, the less seriously they take any award. They know that the only real competition they are up against is themselves.