Louise Glück wins Nobel prize for Literature

Poetic justice: Glück is the 16th woman to win the £850,000 prize. © Getty

Does literature still matter? The American poet Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize yesterday for her “universal” work – but some think literature is no longer a major part of modern culture.

We all know what Louise Glück means when she says that spring is “still meant tenderly”.

Or do we?

That question will be asked by more people now that the American author has won the Nobel prize for literature.

The Swedish Academy, which judges the award, praised her for her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. These lines exemplify what they see as Glück’s timeless truths of human existence: love, life and death.

Glück is one of America’s most widely acclaimed living poets. She has been publishing since 1968 and is best known for her 1992 collection of poems The Wild Iris. In this sequence, a dialogue between flowers, a gardener and God, Glück offers Rilkean lessons about the meaning of life.

The Academy will be hoping that no one can argue with timeless truth, or at least not as many people as last year. The prize, which comes with £850,000 attached to it, has been mired in controversy of late.

Peter Handke, the Austrian author who won the 2018 prize, was criticised around the world for his support for those involved in the Srebrenica massacre.

To make matters worse, his award had come a year late. He was given the prize alongside Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk in 2019. The delay was caused by accusations of sexual assault and harassment which roiled the Academy in 2017. Its reputation has yet to recover.

All of this drama amplifies the constant criticisms that the prize is too Eurocentric; that it favours men over women; and that it often chooses minor writers, rather than those who speak to everyone.

Some would go further and argue that literature itself hardly speaks to anyone anymore – that the cultural space it used to take up now belongs to video games, pop music and television.

Few people will feel ashamed not to have read a book of poems in the last year. Even the novel, a more popular form, is regularly pronounced dead by its own practitioners.

Often, modern literature demands attention from the reader without giving back, some critics say. Homer or Hafez provided their cultures with an idealised picture of their values. Few look to literature for that now.

Others reply that debates about the Nobel, and about the fitness of the recipients, show that literature is still important.

Literature does not mean things that people read to pass the time. It is a way of saying that something matters.

The great works of old and the challenging works of the present might not have the prestige they once did, they say, but the urge to use words to make things last is unlikely to vanish any time soon.

Louise Glück herself once wrote:

“whatever

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice”.

Does still literature matter?

Literati v. Twitterati

Of course it matters, say some. People will always want to record their experiences in a form that others can understand, and this will be literature. The great works of literature have lasted for generations and will continue to matter to people who turn to it for wisdom and consolation. Literature is where people look for values that will help them live their lives.

Not anymore, say others. Once writers spoke to cultures in ways they no longer can. Competing for a fragmented audience with a diminished attention span, literature’s significance will dwindle. Literature might go on being made, but it will hardly register. It will become quaint, like music played on archaic instruments. People will find new media better suited to giving meaning to their lives.

You Decide

  1. If you could only read one book or watch one film again for the rest of your life, which book or film would you choose?
  2. Is everybody’s opinion about what counts as great literature equally valid, or are there better and worse justifications for someone’s taste?

Activities

  1. Write a limerick about why everybody deserves to win a prize.
  2. Write a justification for giving the Nobel prize for literature to someone unexpected. Your choice has to use words in some way but need not be a “writer”.

Some People Say...

“Literature bores me, especially great literature.”

John Berryman, (1914–1972), American poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Nobel Prize for literature is one of the most important events in the literary calendar. It was awarded yesterday to Louise Glück, an American poet. Glück’s work has been highly regarded in the United States for decades. As such, she is likely a safe choice for the Swedish Academy that is currently embattled. A range of scandals have undermined the reputation of this once inarguably prestigious prize.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is whether literature itself still has the cultural prestige it used to have. There is more disagreement about what is and is not literature. Fewer people feel obliged to keep up with what used to be called “high culture”. Depending on who you ask, the controversy over Handke’s prize proves that literature’s authority is declining – or that people are still passionate about literature.

Word Watch

Swedish Academy
The Academy is made up of 18 writers and critics who are elected to this post by their peers. In addition to judging the Nobel, in the style of the Académie Française, it also produces a dictionary intended to promote “the purity strength and sublimity” of Swedish.
Austere
Minimal, bare or unadorned. The word often comes with a connotation of seriousness, perhaps excessive seriousness.
Sequence
The poetic sequence is a long tradition, stretching back at least as far as the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch in English), who wrote hundreds of love poems to a woman named Laura.
Rilkean
In the manner of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Widely regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, he is often considered to have been an especially profound, serious writer.
Srebrenica massacre
This was a war crime committed during the Bosnian war, between ethnic Bosniaks and Serbs in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. It was an especially vicious massacre committed by the Bosnian Serbs against the Bosniaks in 1995. Eight thousand people were killed in what has been ruled an act of genocide by the UN. Handke has several times defended those responsible.
Roiled
Disturbed, as a liquid that contains a sediment would be when stirred.
Eurocentric
Overly dependent on European standards. In the case of the Swedish Academy, it is accused of favouring Europeans over writers from every other continent. This is a hard claim to deny when you look at the statistics. No African, Arab or Chinese writer won the prize until the 1980s.
Homer
Ancient Greek poet, author of the Illiad and the Odyssey. It is unknown if Homer is a single author or a name for a composite oral tradition.
Hafez
A 14th-century Persian poet. The most beloved poet from what is now Iran.

Subjects

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