How noble are Sri Lankan literary awards?
on the ongoing debate on the social currency of Sri Lankan literary
awards, I would like to focus on Nobel Prize for literature and how it
has earned its prestigious position in the literary world.
Nobel Prize for literature
Since French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907) won the
first ever Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901, the Nobel Prize for
Literature has been awarded to any author from any country who has as
Alfred Nobel himself mentioned in his last will and testament, produced
“in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal
Although sometimes individual works may be cited as noteworthy,
‘work’ referred to here is an unabridged literary work of an author. The
Swedish Academy nominated for the purpose will make its decision on, who
will receive the prize in a given year.
In early October the Academy announces the shortlisted authors for
the prize. The Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the five Nobel
Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1885. The other Nobel
Prizes include the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Physics,
Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
However, the recent broad interpretation of the word ‘Idealistic’ or
‘Ideal’ in the Will to include English Translations for the Nobel Prize
for Literature has generated a controversy about the prize.
The earlier strict interpretation of the Will had, in fact, deprived
a galaxy of literary giants such as James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel
Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James of this most prestigious Prize for
literature. Although the outstanding authors had not suffered due to the
deprivation of the Nobel Prize for them, its reputation was somewhat
tainted by the fact that it had not recognised true literary talents.
One may argue that the broad interpretation of the Prize would also
lead to diverse interferences into the selection process and the
possibility of considerations other than literature may influence the
It has been stated that “The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award
Ceremony in Stockholm is when each a Nobel Laureate steps forward to
receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden. ... Under the
eyes of a watching world, the Nobel Laureate receives three things: a
diploma, a medal, and a document confirming the prize amount".
What is important to bear in mind is not the monetary reward one may
receive along with the prize but the international recognition accorded
to the selected author.
Although the Nobel Prize for Literature was recently criticised, the
Prize remains as the most prestigious literary award owing to its strict
selection process. The official website of the Nobel Prize clearly
outlines the selection process as follows:
Nomination and selection of literature laureates
The Nobel Committee sends invitation letters to persons who are
qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other persons
who are qualified to nominate, but who have not received invitations may
also submit nominations. The names of the nominees and other information
about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.
Process of nomination and selection
The Swedish Academy is responsible for the selection of the Nobel
Laureates in Literature, and has 18 members. The Nobel Committee for
Literature is the working body that evaluates the nominations and
presents its recommendations to the Swedish Academy, and comprises four
to five members.
The candidates eligible for the Literature Prize are those nominated
by qualified persons who have received an invitation from the Nobel
Committee to submit names for consideration. Other persons who are
qualified to nominate but have not received invitations may also submit
nominations. No one can nominate himself or herself.
There are a couple guidelines stipulating as to who would constitute
the nominators of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The qualified
nominators may be drawn from members of the Swedish Academy and of other
academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in
construction and purpose, Professors of literature and of linguistics at
universities and university colleges, Previous Nobel Laureates in
Literature and presidents of those societies of authors that are
representative of the literary production in their respective countries.
Social currency of the Nobel Prize
It is noteworthy to observe the fact that the universal acclaim that
the Nobel Prize for Literature has gained over the years despite some
controversy over the selection process, is more or less due to its
recognition of literary excellence.
Almost all the Nobel Prize winning literary works are outstanding
literary works irrespective of the fact whether they are originally
written in English or in their translations.
The Man Booker Prize also maintains its reputation largely due to the
truly recognition of literary excellence. So far the selection process
has been maintaining a higher degree of professionalism and objectivity
in short listing and presenting awards for the selected literary work.
In comparison with The Nobel Prize for Literature and a host of other
literary awards such as The Man Booker Prize, Orange Broadband Prize for
Fiction, what seems to be absent in Sri Lankan literary awards, both for
Sinhalese and English literary productions, is professionalism and
objectivity in the selection process.
The emphasis seems to be on personal or different kinds of
relationships between the author and the selection committee or the
panel of judges rather than on the literary excellence of the works
submitted for the selection.
Unlike the authors who won and shortlisted for international literary
awards, some authors seem to depend on awards to prop up their public
image and to make a quick sale exploiting the reputation of the awards.
However, the fact remains that literary zest of the book is in the
reading and ultimately what matters for readers is not the award-tag on
the book but the literary excellence of the book which would in some way
enrich their lives.
It is high time that Sri Lankan readers should ponder on whether Sri
Lankan literary awards, so far, have lived up to their noble objectives
often enunciated in their brochures.
If the selected literary productions are not worthy of the literary
award conferred, marketing strategies and grand ceremonies would reduce
to mocking theatrical exercises amusing the readers on annual basis.