Is there a lack of diversity in Nobel Prize winners?

Jess Herbert discusses issues of diversity surrounding the recent Nobel Prize in Literature nominations.

Jess Herbert
16th October 2017

On Thursday 5th October, author Kazuo Ishiguro became the 114th winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novels Never Let Me Go and, the Man Booker Prize-winning, The Remains of the Day.

Established by Alfred Nobel in 1901, the award celebrates exceptional contributions to literature and has been won by the likes of William Golding, Jean-Paul Sartre and, controversially, Bob Dylan.

However, the questions arising this year weren’t surrounding whether Ishiguro was a worthy winner. After beating Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Japanese Haruki Murakami and female writers like Margaret Atwood, the question was whether the Nobel Prize could do more to expand the variety amongst its winners.

Born in Japan, Ishiguro’s win isn’t a complete failure for diversity but it’s not substantial enough to prove that The Art World is prioritising representation as the shelf space for non-white, cis, heterosexual, males still remains limited.

when a whole judging body has grown up inside the same echo chamber, it may be harder to appreciate alternative perspectives

Despite writing seven of the ten bestselling books in 2015 and making up almost a third of the top 100 last year, only 14 women have ever been Nobel laureates in literature and the image is even bleaker for black writers who only make up 3 of the 114 winners.

A member of the LGBT+ community is still yet to win at all. Of course, it could be that the contributions from these groups of people couldn’t compete with those who won, however when 16 winners have been Scandinavian surely the bias of those deciding the nominations has to be considered.

The laureate is chosen by 18 members of The Swedish Academy, all of whom are white and Swedish, perhaps suggesting why texts by this demographic are so successful- it’s unlikely that judges from a country where black Africans make up a mere 1% of its ethnic makeup are going to authentically understand a book by a black writer. This isn’t to say they lack empathy or intelligence, only that when a whole judging body has grown up inside the same echo chamber, it may be harder to appreciate alternative perspectives, especially when these are related to race, as Sweden has limited racial diversity and so perhaps BAME writers are disadvantaged.

Ishiguro’s win is a step towards that aim

However, that logic fails to be coherent for the case of women. Sweden was deemed the fourth most gender equal country in the world, yet with less than 10% of winners being female, this seems to be an area in which equality is failing. No one is suggesting that anyone should receive an award because of their gender, race or sexuality however when a similar type of person is celebrated annually, it creates the impression that only one type of successful writer exists- which simply isn’t true.

Despite its faults, the Nobel Prize in Literature excels in its internationalism with winners coming from 42 different countries from Australia to Colombia to South Africa, demonstrating how there really is no default setting for creativity. So while there’s still further to go in the battle for a diverse bookshelf, Ishiguro’s win is a step towards that aim.



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