In 2007, A.N. Wilson questioned the worth of Nobel prizes for literature. He suggested that if one was compelled to write a history of Twentieth Century referencing only Nobel laureates, it would be a challenge. The work of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats has stood the test of time, but how many readers are there who still read the work of John Galsworthy or Pearl Buck? More controversially, Wilson suggested that Seamus Heaney and Toni Morrison might similarly become writers whose work would have disappeared from the literary landscape in a hundred years’ time.
Wilson was particularly scathing about the work of Heaney, suggesting that it was the Northern Ireland Troubles that prompted international liberalism to seek an appropriate voice from the context. He described Heaney as a “minor versifier who in quieter times would have scarcely made it into The Oxford Book of Provincial Verse.” Heaney undoubtedly chuckled when reading Wilson’s words. Criticised on one side for not writing about the Troubles in his work, he is seen negatively by Wilson because he has come from the context of the Northern Ireland conflict. (Personally, I think Heaney’s Mid-Term Break is one of the most moving pieces of English literature I have ever read, but I am not a literary critic).
Whatever one’s opinion on the work of Seamus Heaney, Wilson’s Daily Telegraph column from July 2007 may be more enduring than the work of some of the laureates.
Perhaps his response was simply in accordance with his general demeanour, but Samuel Beckett regarded winning of the Nobel prize for literature with complete equanimity, he was so unmoved by the honour that he sent his agent to receive the award at the ceremony in Stockholm.
Samuel Beckett won the prize fifty years ago, in 1969, if the A.N. Wilson standard is applied to Beckett, how much of his work will be read in fifty years’ time? Perhaps Waiting for Godot will still merit stage performances, but what else among his work will still be remembered?
More recently, in 2016, the prize was awarded to Bob Dylan. Perhaps there was a desire to give Dylan a prize of some sort, and literature seemed the most appropriate, but his lyrics hardly merit literary recognition. Given the randomness with which the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, it might have been a better prize to have awarded Bob Dylan, in recognition of his articulation of protest for peace and equality.
Gaining the Nobel laurels seems neither a guarantee of posterity nor of quality writing.