This is not just because American readers are resistant to fiction in translation, as publishers often complain. On the contrary, over the last two decades, many foreign writers have made a major impact on American literature. W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Haruki Murakami have all been celebrated here and around the world; none has won the Nobel Prize. But then, the failure of the Swedish Academy to reflect the actual judgment of literary history is nothing new. If you drew a Venn diagram showing the winners of the Nobel Prize in one circle and the most influential and widely read 20th-century writers in the other, their area of overlap would be surprisingly small. The Nobel managed to miss most of the modern writers who matter, starting with Henrik Ibsen at the beginning of the 20th century, and continuing through Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Aimé Césaire, and many others.
Does this mean that the Swedish Academy has been particularly incompetent in administering the prize? Would a different group of critics and professors in a bigger, more cosmopolitan country have done a better job at picking the winners? Very possibly; and one salutary side effect of the cancellation is to draw attention to the Academy itself. Like every literary prize, but even more so, the Nobel’s prestige requires that we not pay too much attention to the judges who award it. The members of the Swedish Academy do not hide their identities, but they are completely unknown outside of Sweden, and press accounts of the prize rarely name them; in the mind of the general public, the Nobel basically descends from the sky to anoint the winner. But it is nothing more or less than the decision of a particular group of readers, with their own strengths and weaknesses. As this new scandal has shown, they are just as susceptible to power dynamics and political infighting as the members of any other institution.
But the problem with the Nobel Prize in Literature goes deeper. No matter who is in the room where it happens, the Nobel Prize is based on the idea that merit can best be determined by a small group of specialists. This may make sense for the prizes in the sciences and social sciences, since those fields are less than penetrable to anyone but fellow practitioners. Even in the sciences, however, there is a growing sense that the tradition of awarding the prize to just one or two people distorts the way modern science is actually practiced today: Most important discoveries are the work of teams, not of individual geniuses brooding in isolation.
Literature is at least produced by individual authors; but in this case, the Nobel’s reliance on ostensibly expert judgment runs into a different problem. For literature is not addressed to an audience of experts; it is open to the judgment of every reader. Nor is literature progressive, with new discoveries superseding old ones: Homer is just as groundbreaking today as he was 2,500 years ago. This makes it impossible to rank literary works according to an objective standard of superiority. Different people will find inspiration and sustenance in different books, because literature is as irreducibly pluralistic as human beings themselves.