The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced tomorrow (Japanese author Haruki Murakami is the bookies’ choice to win.) The Laureate is chosen by the Swedish Academy of Literature, and while it exists to recognize literary excellence, one of its judges, Horace Engdahl, doesn’t think there’s much of it around. And for an odd reason: he thinks that there are too many professional writers. In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that grants, creative writing courses and the “professionalization” of literature are ruining writers, who used to make a living doing other things. Earning a living wage from writing, he says, is unhealthy for literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
The idea that writers should scrape by in soul-destroying day jobs while chipping away at their literary masterpieces in their off-hours has a certain romantic appeal (at least, to those who’ve never tried it.) Indeed, Engdahl is correct that many many great writers had to slum it to pay the rent: Kafka was an insurance clerk; Eliot was a banker; Joyce was a teacher. However, what Engdahl has overlooked is the fact none of them really enjoyed it. For a Nobel Prize judge to dismiss the financial security and creative freedom that writers crave in the form of grants seems cavalier. When he added that it was on “our western side that there is a problem, because when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again,” that might be a tip-off for tomorrow’sannouncement (sorry, Philip Roth.) Engdahl also despairs of creative writing courses, and for the ubiquity of novels which “pretend to be transgressive … One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,” he said. “These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.” Incidentally, the Nobel Prize comes with 8 million kronor (around $1.1 million): more than enough, presumably, for the winning author to tell their boss to take this job and shove it.