Burton Feldman’s book The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige purports to be the first comprehensive study of the Nobel Prizes. It’s definitely an entertaining and readable book, but Feldman’s book is more of a collection of highlights and personal opinions than a thorough analysis of the history of the prizes. Feldman begins with a short biography on the rather enigmatic Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who decided to donate most of his immense wealth to celebrate some of the world’s most brilliant minds, and moves on to discuss the awarding of the prizes themselves.Hundreds of thousands of people lust after a Nobel Prize, but only a lucky few win. Feldman covers all six categories: Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace, and Economics. Few people realize how these prizes vary in prestige.
Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine are considered the “hard” prizes, and the awarding in these categories is usually not too controversial, although many of the decisions have sparked lawsuits by scientists claiming that they deserve more credit for the discoveries than the laureate[s].
In contrast, the Literature and Peace prizes are often so controversial and on occasion ill-chosen that their intrinsic value is considered by many pundits to be far lower than their scientific brethren, and the Economics Prize, which was not of the original prizes specified by Nobel but a recent addition at the decision of the Bank of Sweden, is derided by some critics (and laureates) as a sad joke.
Most of the reasons behind the Nobel judges’ decisions are hidden from the public eye, so few people know the real reasons why the judges make the decisions they do. Many people who deserved multiple Nobels have never won, and several who never deserved nomination are laureates. Like all awards, the Nobels are not the final arbiter of worth. Feldman does an excellent job of bringing out the prejudices, phobias, fears, and blatant mistakes made by the judges.
The most interesting chapter is that of the literature prize. Here, Feldman seems to be a real expert on the writers discussed. With few exceptions, the laureates of the first thirty years are virtually unknown today. (Ever hear of C. M. Theodor Mommsen or Rudolf Eucken?) Feldman is in wonderful form as he exposes the silly lies the judges use to defend their decisions.
For example, literary greats like Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf never won the prize, despite being miles above most of the early laureates. The judges often express regret that such geniuses never won, but alas! They were never nominated.
Feldman points out that such an excuse is a total crock, since the judges can nominate anyone they like. If the judges never awarded the prize to a worthy, they have only themselves to blame. Often, great writers were snubbed for purely political reasons.
Feldman really picks apart most of the winners, although he proclaims that most of the laureates of the last two decades deserve their Nobels. However, his criticism is flawed because he never explains why he believes why a certain writer is either talented or merely a glorified hack.
He sneers at William Golding without ever discussing his work, pooh-poohs The Old Man and the Sea without explanation, dismisses Sinclair Lewis for not being sufficiently timeless, and in general uses his own tastes in literature as the final determination of quality, always assuming that the reader agrees with him. Not being an expert in these writers or most of those discussed, I can’t support or refute Feldman’s conclusions, but Feldman seems just as arbitrary as he accuses the Nobel judges of being.
The literature chapter is by far the best. The science and economic chapters are reasonably interesting, but they are dry by comparison. They are most readable when Feldman mocks the committee for giving the prize to the inventor of a crude lobotomy, or a quack cancer cure.
One rather juicy part is when he explains how many peers of Stephen Hawking hold the legendary scientist in low estimation. (Hawking, despite many beliefs to the contrary, has never won. Many of his fellow physicists accuse him of being a shameless self-promoter and of taking credit for other scientists’ ideas.) The Peace Prize chapter is far more interesting, because it dwells on different philosophies and theories of human interaction.
Feldman’s attempts to address the prejudices of the judges are uneven. Feldman is Jewish, and discusses anti-Semitism amongst the judges at great length, and even has an appendix of all the Jewish laureates at the end, an impressive and inspiring list.
While Feldman’s attack on Judeophobia is important, he really ignores bigotry against other groups. He rather skims over Gandhi’s never winning the Peace Prize, and seems to defend the judges for not going out of their way to find more talented writers from the non-Western World. Gender issues are often given short thrift, too. No woman has ever won the Economics prize, and the legendary story of the woman who helped discover DNA but was denied the Nobel in favor of her male associates is barely mentioned.
Also, Feldman totally ignores the Nobel’s history of anti-Catholicism, one of the primary accusations of the Nobel’s detractors. Many of the literature awards in the early years went to third-rate philosophers who slandered Catholic beliefs, and many critics claim that the recent decision to give the prize to the Vatican-attacking Dario Fo, who is more of a stand-up comic than a traditional writer, to be the most criminally insane decision the judges have ever made.
Feldman glosses over Graham Greene’s lack of Nobel by saying he was “too famous,” when in reality students of the prizes have discovered that Greene would have won if not for the violent smear campaign of an anti-Catholic judge. Feldman even adds to this by taking a verbal swipe at Mother Theresa’s Peace Prize (yes, Mother Theresa’s!) by sniffing some of her support for Catholic tenets.
Feldman concludes by saying that the prizes, though not perfect, are an important part of the world culture. Also, he continues, despite the many mistakes that the judges have made, for the most part the decisions have been good ones.
For those readers who wish to someday win a Nobel of your own, Feldman advises that you make friends with influential people, don’t be too controversial, predict upcoming trends and model yourself after them, and to try not to be too brilliant, lest the judges not understand your work.