I amused myself yesterday by briefly getting apoplectic over a Guardian article: Tolkien was dismissed by the 1961 Nobel prize jury as a second-rate storyteller:
The prose of Tolkien – who was nominated by his friend and fellow fantasy author CS Lewis – “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”, wrote jury member Anders Österling. Frost, on the other hand, was dismissed because of his “advanced age” – he was 86 at the time – with the jury deciding the American poet’s years were “a fundamental obstacle, which the committee regretfully found it necessary to state”. Forster was also ruled out for his age – a consideration that no longer bothers the jury, which awarded the prize to the 87-year-old Doris Lessing in 2007 – with Österling calling the author “a shadow of his former self, with long lost spiritual health”.
Durrell, meanwhile, “gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications”, while Italian novelist Alberto Moravia “suffers from … a general monotony”.
Greene, who never won the Nobel, was 1961’s runner-up, with Danish writer Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, coming in third.
It seems to me that the Nobel Committee confused ‘prose’ and ‘storytelling’. Both, of course, are vital in a great novel. My favourites–for example, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin sequence–combine sharp but generous prose with particular characters, vivid setting and riveting plot. It’s that combination that creates the story. And the very best stories have a clear, tight, and inevitable arc.
The Lord of the Rings is one of the best novels I know. It’s not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles–and occasionally lurches–here and there, enough to make the blue pencil in my head twitch and to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. But it improves, and later passages can be very fine. And, oh dear me, yes, he could have lost quite a few chunks of song. And, no, he doesn’t do women fully–he doesn’t do them horribly, he just doesn’t do them enough–but all writers have their weak spots. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien’s arcs–for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn–are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age eleven, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. And I’ve read it roughly every fifteen months since. I know I’m not the only one.
The Nobel Prizes are awarded for “achievement.” I wonder how the Nobel Committee defines that.
The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature fifty years ago was Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić. I have no doubt that he can write, but I had never heard of him. I wonder how writers he has influenced? I wonder, How many people are reading and rereading him today?