HuffPost: Should J. K. Rowling Win the Nobel Prize?

The Huffington Post yesterday put up a fun, provocative article, Should J. K. Rowling Win the Noble Prize? I urge you to read the whole thing and share your thoughts in the comment boxes below.

Here are three thoughts off the top of my head about this article and the possibility that Ms. Rowling might be honored this way:

(1) Would they be honoring her or she them? Forgive me for stating the obvious but the bloom is long off the rose of winning a Nobel Prize, outside of the so-called ‘hard sciences.’ What prompted this HuffPro piece, for an example beyond President Obama receiving the Peace Prize or Tom Friedman winning the Economics Nobel, was the revelation that C. S. Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Literature Prize and was turned down because Tollers “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.” As the author points out, the criteria for the Literature reward from Oslo seems at least as much political correctness and artistic obscurity as literary merit. If Ms. Rowling accepted the prize, it’s value in the eyes of the great unwashed reading public would skyrocket; they would know and have read at least one writer who was a Nobel Laureate.

(2) Does the Hogwarts Saga meet the Literature Prize’s criteria? Here is where it gets to be fun. Forget the actual criteria used by judges in Norway alluded to above. Do Harry’s adventures satisfy the standards that Alfred Nobel set down so long ago?

Jeff O’Neal writes:

In his will that established the prizes, Alfred Nobel wanted the Literature award to go to “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” This phrase is as ambiguous as it is telling; the “ideal direction” of literature is not stated, but the award clearly is intended for authors whose work strives toward some kind of literary ideal.

I don’t think the phrase “in an ideal direction” is necessarily “ambiguous;” I’d say it has at least two obvious meanings and Ms. Rowling’s work satisfies both.

The first and more likely meaning is that Nobel was a man of his age, a logical-positivist, say, and a believer in material progress towards an ideal or perfected society. His funding the awards to assuage his conscience about the damage done by the invention of dynamite suggests this sort of leaning. Ms. Rowling, of course, is less naive and millenialist than any fin de siecle scientist but she is an “idealist” in her political progressivism and enthusiasm for the UK Labour Party.

More substantially, she is an idealist in the philosophical and historical sense of that word in being contra-nominalist, which is to say, a believer in transcendent realities which time-and-space things, persons, and events and art reflect and act as transparencies for their viewing and apprehension. She writes in the imaginative literature traditions of English fantasy and, as such, could be nothing but an author writing in an “ideal direction.” Imagination is the engine of her millenialism, after all.

If Ms. Rowling isn’t qualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature in this regard, no one is, even Tolkien.

(3) Why Shouldn’t She Win the Prize? Mr. O’Neal, the HuffPro reporter, loves the fact that the prize has little to do with writers successfully and artfully connecting readers and meaning. It’s a literature prize, doncha know, and that means it has to be given to someone, anyone, writing something literary, i.e., to a political poet or novelist who writes psychological prose or poesy for the academic set.

As such, O’Neal is obliged to note in off-handed fashion that Ms. Rowling is not qualified to receive the prize because she is a hack writer in genre, popular fiction. He says that “most readers of literature value” “aesthetic and topical demands” and Rowling “doesn’t write great sentences, and it would be hard to argue that the subject matter is hugely important.”

He argues, however, that she deserves the award because she is popular:

Put the artistic imperative aside for the moment and consider this: she is the formative writer for millions and millions of children. …. [T]he questions, characters, stories, and values in her work have resonated with the world.

And what more can books do than that?

You gotta love that “artistic imperative” bit being contrasted with “what books can do”! His ignorance of Ms. Rowling’s artistry, so that her poor abilities as a writer and the lack of merit in her genre(s) of choice are offered as something of a given to the hip crowd of HuffPro, are only matched by the complementary patronizing arrogance of saying, “but, hey, y’know, there is no meaning beyond democratic performance, so the best an author can do is great sales, so, go ahead and give her the Prize!”

Ignorance and arrogance are almost always twins, no? On the internet, it’s hard to find one without the other.

Again, those are my thoughts on the fly. I look forward to your comments and corrections about what I have said, as always, but more about your thoughts on Ms. Rowling’s worthiness to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.


  1. John, I am by no means an expert on the rules/rights and wrongs/ of literature, let alone the Nobel Prize for Literature itself, but one thing in Jeff’s article rings the bell for the “everyday”, “average” reader out there in any land on the globe.
    Jeff writes,
    “There are other ways of thinking about what literature’s goals should be, and the one that jumps to mind for me is reading itself. Reading is an end in itself and therefore writing that inspires people to read does indeed work in “an ideal direction.” And what living author has inspired more people to read and more love of reading than J.K. Rowling?”

    With the 7 book Harry Potter series having sold over 400 million copies in what is it now 65 languages, along with multiple HP Cons still taking place discussing the books, University and College courses teaching Harry Potter courses in literature on the increase, fanfiction and new fantasy fiction works(Twilight, Hunger Games, etc.) now popularized because of the inspiration of JKR ‘s writing of Harry Potter, she wins the Nobel in my opinion.
    In my way of thinking on this, not because she is popular nor now a “famous” personality in the literary world, but because of the effect of a new energized drive that JKR’s Harry Potter delivered to a modern multi-electronic culture to pick up a “book” and set aside the video games to inspire a renewed “imaginative welcome” as C S Lewis perhaps would appreciate if he were with us today.

  2. “… it would be hard to argue that the subject matter is hugely important.” Really? When over 400 million books are sold, the writer is not only writing subject matter that is important to millions, maybe billions of people, but she’s surely offering a “fresh access to reality” (whatever that ridiculous phrase means).

    She deserves it. Awarding her would make the Nobel relevant; it could not possibly improve upon her.

  3. Those who make that decision have the criteria that would consider JK Rowling’s candidature for the prize. Speaking for my self only, I went through only periods of glutinous reading, unexplained to myself why, but insatiable. It had been a long time since losing sleepless nights in love with books I couldn’t put down. Rowling illuminated many of those nights for me. And for that, she has my noble.

  4. No matter how well-deserved the Nobel, I doubt the selection committee is willing to honor JKR with such distinction. The ensuing firestorm from the “literary hierarchy” would be over the top, don’t you think?

    Now, if there was a prize for in-depth analysis and perseverence in the face of controversial discussions, our very own Professor & Co. would win hands-down!

  5. I do not believe that Rowling should win the Nobel prize for literature. However, that statement says much more about what I think of the Nobel prize than is says about Rowling. Outside of the physical sciences, the Nobel prize seems to be all about promoting an ideology that is secular humanist at best. Rowling’s literature promotes ideals that are on the opposite side of the idealogical divide from those promoted by the prize.

  6. Actually Steve sums up very nicely what I was thinking.
    The Nobel committee seems to have gone off the rails on many of their recipients , without naming names.
    Rowling deserves all the praise in the world, but I do not think that the Nobel committee is interested in the divine.

  7. Although I was not originally thinking along the lines of secular/theological, I must say such distinction satisfies my underlying qualms as to “why” HP would not be considered Nobel-worthy. Actually, I am of the opinion that HP needs no other honors save the heart-felt loyalties of the millions who have been changed by Rowling’s version of The Great Story. How many generations have already been touched in these fews years????

  8. This excellent post prompted me to spend a little time reviewing the full list of Nobel prizes in literature

    I’m a little embarrassed to say that I have read almost nothing written by the recent crop of winners with the exception of Naipaul and Mahfouz (both wonderful story-tellers).

    My track record gets better moving down the list to winners of the 1970s vintage or earlier. But what strikes me about the list (even including the great older vintage Laureates) is how few winners produced books that were really fun to read. Seriousness dominates to a degree that I find so depressing. Only Galsworthy (1932) and Kipling (1907) make my short list of authors of splendidly entertaining stories that I absolutely could not put down.

    I somehow suspect that the Nobel committee frowns on readers actually having fun and for that reason would be loathe to acknowledge Ms. Rowling who dares to be both endlessly diverting and enlightening.

    I do not know why, but the cognoscenti seem to prefer deadly serious, grim, grimy, dull and depressing works over pure entertainment in other fields as well. When was the last time a comedy won a major Academy or a Sundance Festival award? I’ll grant that at least most Oscar Best Picture winners really are entertaining but you have to go back to 1965 (The Sound of Music) and 1964 (My Fair Lady) to find a winning film whose primary purpose was simply to delight the eye and the ear.

    And as for the art world, you get three automatic strikes against you if you produce something that is actually pretty. Think I exaggerate? Check out this depressing collection from MOMA:|G%3AHI%3AE%3A1&page_number=20&template_id=1&sort_order=2

    I really wonder ‘why the all long faces’. Are the arbiters of the correct form for the ‘artistic imperative’ simply secular Calvinists, haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere might be happy? Alas, I suspect the tyranny of the Grim (so perfectly embodied by Prof. Sybil Trelawney) has triumphed.

    Sorry for the long response, John, but you really hit a nerve for me on this one!

  9. You’re sorry? You made my day! Thanks for joining the conversation.

  10. Mary Ellen says

    Thank you, John!

    After posting, I realized that I neglected to mention the world of academic music, much of which makes me glad I am losing my hearing. So-called classical music has reverted to something that is beyond logic and certainly beyond pleasure. Here is a short and edifying series of posts discussing the ‘accessibility’ of modern ‘classical’ music that quite proves the point: Perhaps the most illuminating response in this thread comes from polednice, a musician who speaks of his/her long battle with depression:

    ‘If it weren’t for Brahms, life would have appeared as a void of complete blackness – hence why I love him so much! Because of this, I think it is of vital importance to create music that is emotionally stirring. It is only because of the emotional excesses of Romanticism that I was able to channel my extreme feelings away from my darkest thoughts. Atonal structures and originality for originality’s sake does not offer clear emotion (unless by accident!), precisely because it cannot stir our minds in the same way that tonal music can.’

    I’m nowhere near enough of a music lover to judge the broad world of contemporary music, but I have no doubt that there is much in popular music that will happily outlive the detritus produced by music scholars.

    As someone who has taken ‘popular’ fiction seriously, I’m sure you will enjoy this link to the works of a musicologist, Alan Pollack, who has created a masterful analysis of 187 Beatles songs. Can classically trained musicologists take the Beatles seriously? Not without controversy, as this introduction from Ger Tillekens attests:

  11. Question of a Noble prize for JK Rowling is very controversial. This author has a lot of admires, but critics as well which always have something to say about her writiings. It is not her first time on the nominee’s list for the Nobel Prize in linterature, so for she has not managed to obtain it. Her fans keep on sending hundreds of letters to Swedish Acadamy, I wonder if any of the other nominee’s has such a big “army” of fans. Maybe JK Rowling is not the best author in the world, but ther novels has changed the editorial world. Many authors dreams about such success, probably everyone in the world knows her name and her novels. In my opinion she does not fully deserve Nobel Prize, because there are some more amitious writers, whose books carry some message to the people. My opinion is similar to bookmakers and experst who do not give her big chances to win. She is at the end of the list of candidated for the Nobel Prize in Literature chances 150/1. Front runner this year is Haruki Murakami for whom bookmakers set odds at 11/4 . My source is

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