7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize An Introduction to a Formalist Reading

The Nobel Prize for Literature has a storied history as the most important recognition an author can receive but it has taken quite a few hits of late with respect to its respectability. First there was the controversy when Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 prize; many felt the vagabond songster, however obscure in his lyrics, was insufficiently literary or serious for this honor. Then the committee that chooses the recipient each year was hit in April 2018 with its own #MeToo moment. There won’t be a 2018 prize, consequently, if the Academy does hope to offer two prizes in 2019 to make up for lost time.

What to do, though, this year? How about offering an alternative Nobel Prize for literature without the progressive agenda and old school tie prejudices of the Academy? That’s the thinking behind the New Academy Prize in Literature, both to fill the breach and to offer an implicit criticism of the elitism of all things Nobel. Though ultimately selected by a panel, the process includes a plebiscite of sorts online – we get a vote! — and the panel would include the relative humble presence of librarians instead of literati.

I bring all this up because J.K. Rowling was nominated for the New Academy Prize along with forty other authors; news coverage of the New Academy Prize inevitably mentioned her first among nominees, perhaps because of how recognizable the name is, perhaps to highlight that the New Academy Prize is not your grandfather’s Nobel in Literature. Which is to say, “J. K. Rowling, super-popular but no serious writer, would never have made the finalists list for the real Nobel Prize in Literature.”

Now, Rowling didn’t make the finalists list for the alternative prize, either (though “genre” fantasy writer Neil Gaiman did). But why the whiff of patronizing dismissal in the fact that she was even nominated?

The simple fact is, though no living author’s work has ever been the subject of as much critical attention as has Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, this tsunami of academic literature has done very little to raise her reputation as a writer. Besides the rush of new work in the field — I think of Shira Wolosky’s Riddles of Harry Potter, Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, and Patrick McCauley’s Into the Pensieve — little of the quality anthologized essays or book length treatments that take Harry and his creator seriously as literature has penetrated the public or media mind.

The neat solution to the problem of Rowling not being taken seriously as an intentional writer is to take the most rigorous school of literary criticism and apply its tools to a very close reading of Rowling’s work. The school I’m thinking of is usually called ‘Russian Formalism’ and there are at least three reasons for thinking this relatively obscure branch of critical history is apt and important for establishing Rowling’s bona fides as a Nobel worthy author.

(1) Formalism Focuses on the Work to the Exclusion of All Else

Rene Welleck wrote in 1954 that:

Russian Formalism keeps the work of art itself in the center of attention: it sharply emphasizes the difference between literature and life, it rejects the usual biographical, psychological, and sociological explanations of literature. It develops highly ingenious methods for analyzing works of literature and for tracing the history of literature in its own terms.

Paul Ehrlich, whose Russian Formalism remains the accepted started point in histories of this movement, explains:

The driving force behind Formalist theorizing was the desire to bring to an end the methodological confusion prevailing in traditional literary studies and systematize literary scholarship as a distinct and integrated field of intellectual endeavor. It is high time, argued the Formalists, that the study of literature, so long an intellectual no-man’s land, delimit its area and define unequivocally its subject of inquiry.

This was exactly what the Formalists set out to do. They started from the premise – which today is widely accepted – that the literary scholar ought to address himself to the actual works of imaginative literature rather than, to quote Sir Sydney Lee, to the ‘external circumstances in which literature is produced.’

Literature, argued M. Kridl, ought to be in itself the subject of literary scholarship and not a means to some extraneous studies. But to the militant Formalist ‘specifier’ this was not specific enough. In order to disengage the study of literature from obtrusive contiguous disciplines, e.g., psychology, sociology, and cultural history, it seemed necessary to narrow down the definition still further. “The subject of literary scholarship”, wrote Jakobson, “is not literature in its totality, but literariness (literaturnost’), i.e., that which makes of a given work a work of literature.”  “The literary scholar qua literary scholar”, added Ejxenbaum, “ought to be concerned solely with the inquiry into the distinguishing features of the literary materials.” (Formalism, pp 171-172)

The two acceptable schools of public criticism today are the Freudian and Marxist perspectives of psychoanalytic interpretation via an author’s biography and so-called Critique, in which the re-fashioned parameters of Soviet Realism (now oppressor-oppressed, ie., racism, anti-colonialism, sexism, etc., instead of proletariat-bourgeoise) are used to analyze a text as artifact and to render judgment on its political value (‘correctness’ via Commissar). Neither focuses on or even allows for the author’s ability to transcend autobiographical projection and cultural influences and to write a work about such things.

The Formalist school allows for, really it demands that this possibility be taken seriously and the work be examined on its own terms, as if it had no author or historical context. A little over-board? Maybe. But this perspective simultaneously corrects for the excesses of prevalent critical schools today while offering an interpretation that is so pervasively literary that its judgment might correct the Cinderella story and Kid Lit writer albatrosses Rowling has not been able to escape.

(2) Two of Rowling’s Most Important Influences Were Formalists

As obscure and anachronistic as the Russian Formalists must seem and as quirky (the axiom is that “there is no Formalism, only Formalists”), their suppression in 1930 by the Soviet thought-police hardly ended their work and influence. Structuralism, New Criticism, and the Chicago School all draw deeply from the original Formalists. I won’t journey down the endless rabbit hole of “History of 20th Century Literary Criticism.” Rowling is not known to have ever read or studied academic approaches to literature beyond what she may have learned in her French and mythology classes at University of Exeter, and, to my knowledge, she has never mentioned in interviews Shlovosky, Jakobson, Bakhtin or any Formalist critic who was not also a writer.

She has told us, however, how much she loves the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and C. S. Lewis, if her most recent comments about the Narnian have been to distance herself from his supposedly pervasive influence. I’ve written about Rowling and Nabokov at some length here and here; suffice it for our purposes in this piece that Rowling has consistently listed Nabokov as one of her three favorite authors since 1999, said he is the author she “really loves,” and that he is her favorite 20th century novelist. For Rowling’s comments about C. S. Lewis, review Maureen Lamson’s comprehensive survey of same here. An early sample:

1998: Electronic Telegraph, 25 July 1998
“[Rowling] loved C. S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, but was not such a fan of Roald Dahl. As for the Enid Blyton books, Rowling says she read them all, but was never tempted to go back to them, whereas she would read and re-read Lewis. “Even now, if I was in a room with one of the Narnia books I would pick it up like a shot and re-read it.””

1998: The Australian, 7 November 1998

“Fantasy is not my favourite genre. Although I love C. S. Lewis, I have a problem with his imitators.” At 33, Rowling still re-reads The Chronicles of Narnia, famous for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (she likes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader best) along with other childhood favourites, E. Nesbit, Paul Gallico and Noel Streatfield.

Here’s the thing. We think of Nabokov and Lewis as novelists but for the much greater part of each man’s life, they made their living as academics and I think it can safely be assumed that both poured out the greatest part of their energies in their prime to heavy tomes of literary criticism: Nabokov at Cornell University and his four volume translation of and line by line commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lewis’ mammoth volume in the Oxford History of the English Language, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama).

And I think it is safe to say, if either of these remarkably prescient non-conformists is to be slotted as an advocate of a particular school of criticism, both would be called “formalists.” This is not the place to explore this idea at any length; I encourage anyone skeptical to read Michael Glynn’s Vladimir Nabokov: Bergsonian and Russian Formalist Influences in His Novels (Palgrave, 2007) and C. S. Lewis scholar Peter Schakel’s anthology, The Longing for a Form: Essays on the Fiction of C. S. Lewis (Kent State, 1977).

Their formalism was not Russian, per se, if Nabokov grew up in Tsarist St Petersburg and lived in emigre communities before escaping the Nazis by emigrating to the United States, but the literary criticism and the novels of Nabokov and Lewis reflect formalist tenets and literary focus (see especially Lewis’ debate with Tillyard about the psycho-biographical and historical approaches to reading fiction in The Personal Heresy; Lewis takes the formalist position contra the pervasive ‘cultural influences’ school).

Formalism, then, if only because Rowling has told us how much she admires and re-reads these two formalist authors, is not an abitrary choice for understanding her novels but an especially appropriate one.

(3) Formalist Writers Primarily Write about Writing and the Experience of Reading

‘Literariness’ is the great focus of literature studies per se among the Formalists, hence their great admiration for the authors who understand this and write largely about the reading life and writing conventions. Viktor Shklovosky famously quipped that Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, perhaps the most self-involved bit of writing ever, was “the most typical novel:”

In this way, the plot of Eugene Onegin is not the love between Eugene and Tatiana but the appropriation of that story line in the form of digressions that interrupt the text. One sharp-witted artist, Vladimir Milashevsky, has proposed to illustrate this novel in erse y focusing chiefly on the digressions (the “little feet,” for instance) and, from a purely compositional point of view, this would be quite appropriate.

The forms of art are explained by the artistic laws that govern them and not by comparisons with actual life. In order to impede the action of the novel, the artist resorts not to witches and magic potions but to a simple transposition of its parts. He thereby reveals to us the aesthetic laws that underlie both of these compositional devices.

It is common practice to assert that Tristram Shandy is not a novel. Those who speak in this way regard opera alone as true music, while a symphony for them is mere chaos.

Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel in world literature. (Theory of Prose, p 170)

Hence also Shklovosky’s great admiration for Don Quixote. Michael Maar has written that Nabokov would have loved Harry Potter and I suspect he is right, for all the reasons he gives and because Rowling embeds in every book texts which the characters struggle to read and understand, mirror reflections of our efforts to figure out her text and understand it. Think of Riddle’s Diary, the Chocolate Frog Card, the Prophecy, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and Tales of Beadle the Bard, not to mention every trip into the Pensieve, the online postings of Barry Fairbrother in Casual Vacancy, or, my favorite, Bombyx Mori in The Silkworm, the novel with the same name as the novel we’re reading that isn’t by the male author who is supposed to have written it but the bitter, overlooked woman not taken seriously as a writer (can you say Galbraith-Rowling?).

Rowling is, like Lewis and Nabokov, a parodist, a lover of literary allusion and polyvalent names, and a writer writing about writing and reading in each and every book and screenplay she writes. The tools of the formalist school, consequently, are important keys for unlocking her work and revealing her literary merits.

Coming soon, as we wait for Lethal White, the first of several posts in which I will discuss seven formalist ideas and their relevance for understanding Rowling as a serious writer, even one worthy of a Nobel Prize, not just an alternative consolation award. Stay tuned!


  1. This is excellent! I’ve been on a tirade about this for several months now. I’m glad you’re putting these ideas to paper.

    Literary criticism of our time has let Rowling down.

  2. Karen Kebarle says

    I love Rowling`s work, as you know, but there are an awful lot of people more deserving of the Nobel Prize. The most obvious candidate I can think of is Canada`s Margaret Atwood.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I’d be interested in a moratorium on living-author Nobel Lit Prizes till they have gone back and awarded posthumous ones to any number of authors – Tolkien (nominated back in day by Lewis), Lewis, but how far back would be far enough – Jane Austen? Shakespeare? the Gawain Poet? Dante? St. Hildegard? Virgil? Homer? Moses? (I scatter names who spring to mind….)

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