Behind The Scenes Part Two

As I promised yesterday, here’s more from the interesting and revealing interview Irving Wallace, the great American writer, had with the judges of the Nobel Prize, in Sweden.

“I wanted more of Dr. Hedin’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes. I knew that this was a real story- the truth about the Nobel Prize awards, the truth about those who gave and those who took. Immediately, I requested a second appointment, to discuss only the Nobel Prizes, and Dr. Hedin was delighted to grant me another interview.
Two weeks later we met again. And this second time we were together, Dr. Hedin’s answers were even more stimulating. For three hours he discussed specific balloting that had taken place behind closed doors over many years within the three science committees, and literary and peace committees. Without inhibition he named names, he discussed the human frailty of the judges and the judged, he revealed stupidity and brilliance in the voting, and he exposed politics and prejudices and petty vanities as well as honesty and wisdom and courage.
The bitter personal prejudices of a single judge, Dr. Carl David af Wirsén, a poet and critic, prevented the Nobel Prize from going to Tolstoi, Ibsen, Strindberg. Wirsén resented Tolstoi for advocating anarchism and for denouncing all money prizes as harmful to artists, and Wirsén’s colleagues resented Tolstoi for being a Russian. Wirsén’s vote was decisive in rejecting Ibsen, who Wirsén argued had not written anything worthwhile in eleven years. And Wirsén led the opposition against Strindberg, insisting that the great playwright’s dramas were ‘old-fashioned’ and reminding his fellow judges that Strindberg had once announced, “The anti-Nobel prize is the only one I would accept!” … The personal behavior of authors sometimes kept them from receiving deserved awards. Flagrant immortality barred D’Annunzio, and homosexuality delayed Gide’s receipt of the award for many years. … The anti-Semitism of one prominent Nobel Prize winner, the German scientist Philipp Lenard, may have been the major factor in keeping the award from Albert Einstein at a time when Einstein was expected to win it. Lenard, who had great influence among the Nobel Prize judges, told the judges that the theory of relativity was not actually a discovery, had never been proved, and was valueless. Accordingly, the Nobel judges refused to honor Einstein for his early theory of relativity, and continued to pass him by for seven years. By then Lenard’s influence had weakened, and the Swedish judges relented and elected Einstein the physics laureate in 1921 for his lesser work on the photoelectric effect. … The selection of Gabriela Mistral for the literary award in 1945, over Hesse, Romains, Croce, Sandburg, and others was made “because one of our judges, Hjalmar Gullberg, a poet, fell in love with her verse, and translated all of it into Swedish to convince us, and single-handed he swayed our entire vote.””

Astonished by this overwhelming information but at the same time speculating the possibility that Dr. Hedin could be gossiping the writer then interviewed Dr. Österling, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, who had been a literary judge for more than two decades. Here’s what happened:

“Dr. Österling was as candid as Dr. Hedin had been. At the time of my interview with Dr. Österling, no Russian writer living inside Russia had ever won a Nobel Prize. Because of the historic Swedish fear and hatred of its big neighbor, the Nobel committees had ignored Russian genius, and the Swedish academy had voted down Chekhov, Tolstoi, Andreyev, Gorki. Only one Russian author had ever been awarded the prize. In 1933, a minor writer, and expatriate who lived in Paris and had translated Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” into Russian, Ivan Bunin by name, had been voted the Nobel Prize in literature. When I asked Dr. Österling why Bunin got the prize, he replied, “To pay off our bad consciences on passing over Chekhov and Tolstoi.”
Dr. Österling told me that he had fought hard against Pearl Buck’s receiving the award. And while Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair had all been up for consideration and had been decisively voted down, neither Thomas Wolfe nor James Joyce had ever been voted upon, because neither had ever been nominated. He said that often authors’ wives tried to nominate their husbands officially. Furthermore, the language in which an author published was sometimes a factor in his winning an award. Anyone writing Hindi, for instance, would have a difficult time winning the award, since the Nobel committee had no personal knowledge of the language and no experts upon which they could rely. Dr. Österling frankly admitted that some of the Swedish literary judges, himself included, were prejudiced against certain American novelists. “I am against Americans getting it because they do not need our checks and they receive more money from Hollywood than our Nobel Prize is worth.””
From the book ‘The Writing Of One Novel’ by Irving Wallace

Unfair or not, those were the facts. Strange how sometimes when we are on the lookout for ideas for our articles, or our fiction, we discover details and truths that change our perspective about people, about events and situations. Events like prestigious literary awards that we think highly of, become merely a source of embarrassment and disappointment.


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3 Responses to Behind The Scenes Part Two

  1. Very interesting to read this behind-the-scenes account of our literary awards. I had suspected that something similar was going on, having attended a couple of Manitoba Book Awards ceremonies. The local Writer’s Guild has great influence on what they consider ‘literary’ as opposed to mainstream or genre fiction and I think its members judge the work that has been nominated, thereby offering a skewed perspective of what should or shouldn’t receive recognition. Not that I’m bitter that my book wasn’t chosen for the category in which it was nominated! lol As a matter of fact, I was happy for Anita, having read ‘Spider’s Song’ and loved it! 🙂

  2. Pingback: From Village to Validation | Two Voices, One Song

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