Should White Men Get Awards?

And should the curriculum be white?

848px-Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylan_crop.jpg

In today’s Guardian is a piece bemoaning the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan; as an idea that is perfectly acceptable however, the piece argues that the reason for not awarding Mr Zimmerman the Nobel should be because of his whiteness and maleness.

The Nobel prize in literature is infamous for its conventionality and the limits of its imagination. In its 115-year history, only 14 women have been awarded the prize, and only four of those women have been writers of colour. The Nobel prize has one of the worst gender ratios in any major literary award, which is troubling given that its internationality means that it is viewed as the most prestigious literary award around. 

There are some very important points being made here, the figures might suggest that the members of the awarding committee have been guilty of racism and sexism over the years yet it is equally possible that they might not have been. Bearing in mind Dylan’s Jewish heritage it was interesting that the writer, Natalie Kon-Yu, didn’t mention how many Jews have received the award. She goes on to say:

Prizes are subjective measures, but they are important: they reinforce the standards of great writing in our culture, with a focus on quality rather than popularity.

If the focus is to be on quality of the work and not on the race and sex of the person who makes the work anomalies might happen. Any accusation of sexism and racism would have to look at the quality of the work in order to prove that other work was better but, as Kon-Yu also points out, this is very much a subjective judgement. If the committee feels that Dylan’s work qualifies for the prize I am sure they are able to justify it in qualitative, subjective terms. Art should not be measured ‘objectively’. However, the argument in the piece doesn’t offer qualitative points about the art, instead it suggests that:

The Guardian listed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami as favourites to win the prize this year – and all of those would have been a better choice than Dylan. There are also plenty of women, accomplished novelists, essayists and memoirists who could have won.

What about Atwood, who has written poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and whose work has been endlessly republished, studied around the world, and awarded major prizes for decades? Or Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 40 books of fiction as well as novellas, plays, poetry collections, short stories and non-fiction?

Or, if the Nobel committee really wanted to be radical, it might have given the award to Ferrante, who has achieved incredible commercial appeal for books that examine the sexism and classism of Italy in the 20th century.

Kon-Yu writes that: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami would have been a better choice than Dylan but doesn’t suggest why, yes there are plenty of women who could have won, that they didn’t might be that in a subjective argument about quality it was felt their work did not to match up to Dylan’s oeuvre. Maybe next time?

It is interesting that the argument given tries to reach for objective facts, the numbers of books published, awards awarded, times republished, and on all these scales Dylan is hardly surpassed as an artist. In many ways Dylan is such an icon he is difficult to ignore. Whether he deserves the Nobel prize for literature is an argument worth having because, qualitatively, his work doesn’t necessarily stand up on its own terms as great literature:

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

On its own this lyric doesn’t read well, yet put it with a guitar, a tune and a gravelly voice it works wonders, maybe the Nobel institute could look at making awards in a wider range of categories, though I am sure it is possible to pick out lyrics from Dylan’s many years of writing which stand up there with the world’s best literature, it’s his role as a singer songwriter and of the influence he has on others that makes him truly great.

His greatness should not be ignored because of his race or gender, the award should be for the work, nothing else. The same problem arises when choosing what to study in schools, is it the quality and historical importance of works that should be the reason for study or the gender and race of the writer? I would argue strongly for the former. However as a white male, if I was sat in a room of entirely white males, with similar backgrounds, putting together a curriculum, we could rightly be accused of having a view that is too narrow; the opinions heard must include voices that represent people whose class, race, sex etc. are truly representative of all, not because that would necessarily mean that the choices made would be different, though they might well be, but that we could be sure that the choices made had a universal, qualitative, importance. That some of this work might be produced by white European males should not exempt it from study, as the great black Marxist writer CLR James put it:

“I denounce European colonialism… but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’

I think that quality of work, rather than the gender and race of the writer, should be our touchstone, however I also think the members of committees who are in positions of power when designing curricula should be more reflective of the nation and in the case of international awards, the world.

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