Do you think that personal preferences play a major role in choosing the recipients of great literary prizes? Do you think that foul play is involved to some extent in the voting process of the nominees and in deciding who the reward should go to? I’m referring to rewards such as the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Prix Goncourt and even the most prestigious of them all, the Nobel Prize.
In 1946, Irving Wallace, then a freelance writer, was on the search for ideas for articles he would write for different magazines. He was in Stockholm when he heard about Dr. Sven Hedin, one of Sweden’s twenty greatest scientists of the preceding three hundred years, with international fame as hydrographer, cartographer, and author of widely read travel books. More interesting was the fact that Dr. Hedin besides being famous was also an embarrassment and a scandal. Since he had backed Nazi Germany and had publicly characterized Hitler as “one of the greatest men in world history.” Here was a possible idea for a magazine article about a ‘notorious’ Swede, as Irving Wallace put it. So on September 8, 1946, Mr. Wallace sat with Dr. Hedin for an interview. Here’s how the writer describes it.
“As our interview continued through the waning afternoon, my host, I perceived, was becoming more and more eager, eager and anxious, to impress me with his importance. He wanted the publicity of my article, and he wanted it to be favorable. Suddenly, during some reply of his, he halted abruptly, and then he said to me, “You know I am a Nobel Prize judge, do you not?”
I had not known that, and I was quite astonished and, indeed, impressed. I was impressed because, to me, to most persons I am sure, the Nobel Prize is the world’s foremost accolade given by man to man. And here was I, informally chatting with one of the august Nobel judges. And, I repeat, I was astonished. What astonished me was the fact that this person I was interviewing was a cobweb of prejudices and misinformation and intolerance on many, many subjects, from sciences to the arts, all of which came within the sphere of Nobel Prize considerations. To picture Dr. Hedin- someone altogether mortal- as a Nobel judge, one who played a decisive role in the annual crowning of gods, was astounding.
I had always believed, without ever having thought about it much, that if there were Nobel judges, they would be the wisest elders of our age. Actually, I suspected, most people did not believe that the Nobel Prizes were decided upon by human judges at all, but rather were selected at a meeting of deities on high Olympus or selected by some massive, invisible computing machine that could X-ray the earth’s talented, its geniuses, and appoint the most deserving as winners.
Intrigued by the contrast between what I had expected and what I unexpectedly found before me, I came to life, and began to pepper Dr. Sven Hedin, Nobel judge, with questions about his functions on his committee, about how winners were nominated, sorted out, narrowed down, secretly discussed and debated over, voted upon, and about his own role. Dr. Hedin, sensing my excitement, was pleased and expansive, and he rattled on for another hour or more.
What I learned was incredible. My mind reeled. Dr. Hedin was not a Nobel judge on just one committee. He was a Nobel judge on three committees, the only Nobel Prize judge who voted annually on three of the four categories that Sweden controlled. He had been a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science since 1905, and every year since that time he had cast a vote for the laureate in physics and a vote for the laureate in chemistry. In 1913, he had been elected to the Swedish Academy, and ever since then he had been one of the eighteen judges to vote on the yearly Nobel Prize for literature.
Dr. Hedin was full of confidences. Did I know that when Pearl Buck’s name had been proposed for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938, ten of the eighteen Swedish judges present at the secret-vote meeting were against her? Well, continued Dr. Hedin, he and Selma Lagerlöf had been the leaders of the minority who wanted the award to go to Pearl Buck. Dr. Hedin had been the most vociferous in favor of Pearl Buck. He admired her work, her knowledge of China (which almost equated his own), and he and Selma Lagerlöf had fought and finally overcome the resistance of the majority of their fellow judges. “Pearl Buck and her husband published my last book, a biography of Chiang Kai-shek. They gave me too little money for it, and to think how I got her the Nobel Prize!”
Once, when I interrupted to ask Dr. Hedin why some prominent authors had never won the Nobel Prize, he asked me what authors I had in mind. Well, I said, Maxim Gorky for one. “Ah, he died too soon. His name came up several times; he would have got it eventually.” What about H.G. Wells? “too minor and journalistic.” What about Somerset Maugham? “too popular and undistinguished.” And James Joyce. What about James Joyce? Dr. Hedin seemed puzzled. “Who is he?””
These were the words of a Nobel Prize judge. Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes tomorrow!