Some people are scratching their heads at the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, the newest winner French writer Patrick Modiano is not popular or even well known around the world, and only a fraction of his books are available in English translation.
Just because Patrick Modiano has not been prominent on the international radar does not mean the author is a nobody coming from left field though. Modiano has been amply recognized in his native France. He has won top French awards and his books have been bestsellers in France.
Questioning Modiano’s win on the basis of his absence from the world stage misses the point of the prize completely. Despite what it is sometimes made out to be, the prize is not a popularity contest. Modiano’s prolific writing deals with the French Occupation and with memory, and that is firmly Nobel Prize territory.
What is the Nobel Prize for Literature anyway? First of all, it is undoubtedly a great honor. Each year the Swedish Academy awards the prize to an author whose work they recognize as both outstanding and idealistic. While the first qualification is thought of as a barometer of literary merit, the latter qualification comes from Alfred Nobel’s wishes for the prize that bears his name. Over the years, “idealistic” has sometimes taken on a political will with some writers not being considered because of their outlook or politics and other writers being considered more for that reason. In any case, the Nobel Prize for Literature is a celebration of literature and human achievement. Alice Munro won in 2013 for giving a voice to the Canadian provinces and the short story genre.
Beyond getting the Swedish Academy to vote for the same person, nowhere does it say that the Nobel Prize for Literature is a popularity contest. That said, the Nobel Prize for Literature does inevitably make authors popular. Translators and publishing houses are no doubt lining up to publish Modiano’s work and bring out new translations to readers curious about this French author who has just been brought to their attention. That is the way it should be.