Controversy reignited over Nobel Prize in Literature

New records reveal anger over John Steinbeck's 1962 award

As the most coveted literary award in the world, who should win the Nobel Prize in Literature is often the subject of heated debate. Czech writer Karel Čapek was denied the prize in the 1930s because his anti-fascist writing offended the Nazi German government. Conversely, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was allegedly denied the prize in the 1970s due to his support for the far-right South American governments of the time. In an attempt to avoid controversy, the nominations and discussions over who should be awarded the prize are kept a close secret for 50 years. However, this strategy seems merely to delay debate rather than avoid it.

In January the world learnt that in 1962, the year American author John Steinbeck won, Karen Blixen, Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell were also nominated. This has restarted the debate which raged at the time as to whether Steinbeck was worthy of the prize at all. The New York Times was shocked that a writer of 'limited talent' prone to 'tenth-rate philosophizing' was even nominated.

In 1962 the Nobel committee was split over the prize as there wasn’t 'any obvious candidate'; they claimed they were in an 'unenviable situation' – Graves was considered too much of a poet (a poet had won the year previously), Blixen had died that September (making her ineligible) and it was considered too soon to give Durrell the prize (his only novels of note being The Alexandria Quartet). This left Steinbeck, previously nominated many times and hugely popular (despite the misgivings of the literary establishment), to take the prize. His literary credentials may have been suspect to some, but there is no doubt that his influence as a writer remains supreme – his books are still massively popular, particularly with schools. Steinbeck himself was sceptical of the prize, when asked if he felt he deserved it, he replied 'Frankly, no.'

last modified: Mon, Feb 18th 2013Bookmark and Share
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