(First in Literature, that is)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to look beyond the sciences, and start awarding annual Nobel Prizes in Literature. The first prize was to be awarded in 1901. There wasn’t much question who deserved it. Leo Tolstoy was still alive. He was not only the greatest novelist ever, probably, but also an imposing moral figure, a champion of passive resistance. (He would eventually inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King.) So the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to …
No, I haven’t read anything of his. I doubt I ever will.
Next year they could still have awarded the prize to Tolstoy, although it would have been pretty embarrassing to have him getting it only after Prudhomme. So instead the prize went to the historian Theodore Mommsen. Thus began a century-plus long tradition of hit-and-miss awards. In some years, the awardees were acknowledged great writers. In other years, the winners were less well-known, but arguably merited the wider recognition that came with the prize. But many of the choices – and omissions – were just plain weird.
In response to all these wasted opportunities, Ted Gioia, musician, music historian, and author, offered his own list of authors who should have gotten the prize, year by year, with a generous representation of popular writers as well as more literary ones (and one of each in 1966). Looking over his choices, I might disagree with this one or that one, but I certainly couldn’t have done any better. Here’s a link to The Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe.