7 October 2014
Every mid-October some unsuspecting writer gets a phone call. It’s the secretary of the Nobel Prize committee! Overnight, an averagely respected author is turned into a global literary celebrity. What does this mean for the author, and is it different to other kinds of media fame?

‘I’m a literary celebrity: get me out of here!’

Rushing from radio interview to prime-time TV appearance to public event, this year’s laureate will certainly feel the motors of celebrity firing through his or her life and work. The real writer is invariably pushed to one side as multiple media-generated images pop up in his or her stead. Suddenly the paparazzi are everywhere. Schooled in the art of fictional self-projection, many bear this with good grace, and some relish in it. But ultimately it is celebrity ‘lite’: the writer as a person is interesting to the world, but not that interesting.

Unlike other literary prizes, the Nobel Prize builds on a tradition of rewarding people, not books

For many cultural critics, this focus on the ‘human-interest’ is an occupational hazard of the 20th century that has been amplified by the social media of the 21st. For many academics, it sits uneasily with the notion of ‘serious’ literature.

However, in a workshop held at Lancaster University this September, Tom Mole argued that celebrity actually begins not with the invention of the 20th century film star, but with the 19th century cult of the Romantic genius. Literary authors ranked high on the early lists of celebrity. By the mid-19th century, for example, statues of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron had sprung up alongside forms of ‘fan fiction’ that are strikingly similar to what we find across social media today.

My own work on the German context has shown that such public appropriations of writers were facilitated by the industrial revolution on the one hand and the political desire for credible cultural figureheads for the nation on the other. Indeed writers, as Jessica Goodman has argued in the case of France, seem to function particularly well as projection spaces for shared cultural values: Voltaire and Rousseau were the only two occupants of the French pantheon for 11 of the first 15 years of its existence, while a series of political figureheads were ritually interred and disinterred around them.

In his will of 1895, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the prize be awarded to the writer who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. The terminology now seems alien, but the resultant Nobel Prize has proved enduring. This is because it draws massively on both the 19th century cult of the great author and the 20th century media of TV, newsfeed, and internet. It has become an important milestone in the creation of a systematic promotional infrastructure for literature that relies first and foremost on the author’s physical body.

Literary celebrities do not travel well

The trouble, however, with the contemporary kind of media-powered celebrity that underpins the Nobel Prize is not only that it is as transient as it is quickly generated. Celebrity also increasingly implies a global reach that marble statues and national edifices alone will not guarantee. It is difficult enough for authors to garner a genuinely wide audience in their own national context, never mind further afield.

The German-language laureates Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller were almost completely unknown outside their central European contexts, and relatively niche within them, when they won the Nobel in 2004 and 2009 respectively, as was the French writer Jean-Marie Le Clézio in 2008. All three were the subject of a predictable flurry of activity directed at making both their work and their person better known across the globe.

This was successful in their native contexts. To take just one example: Romania and Germany, both of whom had been slow to embrace the Romanian-German Müller prior to the award, quickly began throwing open the doors of their literary institutions to the author. However, lasting global recognition has been more measured. Their works may now be more readily available in translation, but the world media has since fallen largely silent on all three authors. Famous Olympians, by contrast, are known the world over.

This comparative enduring obscurity is nothing to do with the actual literary achievements of any of the recent laureates. It stems from the simple fact that the economic power driving today’s machinery of celebrity does not have a lasting interest in authors. While the Nobel Prize unquestionably brings the same celebrity processes into the world of literature as can be found in other walks of life, it does not take the literary celebrity very far out into the world. From a hard-nosed, business point of view, a multinational publisher will tell you that real sales figures are generated not by the literary celebrities on its list, but by the literature written by celebrities: sporting and political biographies that people will pick up on a whim if they are discounted on supermarket shelves.

Thankfully, then, there is a real body of work to which this year’s winner can return when his or her own body has ceased to be of immediate media interest. By October 2015 the laureate from 2014 should be well able to get back to the writing projects that were interrupted by that fateful call.

Please see full text in The Conversation.

Dr Rebecca Braun teaches on our European Languages and Cultures programmes.