Because of the attention that the literature prize attracts across the world and because of its prestige, the Nobel laureates have inevitably come to be seen as forming a kind of modern canon. This has provoked the critical reproach that many of the 20th century's greatest writers are missing from the list, and that it includes too few women and not enough non-Europeans.
I believe that the Academy members who comprised that first Nobel Committee in 1901 would have been terrified had they realized what they were about to set in motion. Certainly in those first few years no one thought of the prize as a means to define a canon. (Nor was the concept of a canon applied to contemporary literature-that is a late development.) Alfred Nobel's will intends to reward a literary work published in the previous year--a single book, not a body of writing. Nobel clearly wanted the literature prize to act in the present, rather than crown masters for all time. As it turned out, the Swedish Academy gave the prize a distinctly monumental character. In doing so, it could appeal to the wording of the Nobel Foundation's statutes, the final document that directs the activity of the Nobel Prize committees. According to the statutes, older works may be awarded, "if their significance has not become apparent until recently." This concession was used to motivate the practice of considering a lifetime's creativity rather than an individual work. The phrase "during the preceding year" was interpreted in a broader sense, as a demand for the continued viability of a work.
Today, the annual crowning of a Nobel laureate for literature--an individual often removed from the regions of the world which are the focus of international interest, writing in a language outside the broad sweep of western literature--suggests that the concept of a single body of works that drives and defines global creativity is an anachronism. If we want to consider the possibility of a truly Global Canon, it might be best to look at the intellectual tradition from which Alfred Nobel inherited his idea of literature.
When Nobel was in the process of drawing up his famous will, his friend Bertha von Suttner, the peace activist and writer, gave him the first issue of Magazine International, a journal first published in 1894 by an international artists' union. His copy of the magazine is preserved in the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy. On the cover is the famous passage from Goethe's conversations with his longtime personal secretary Johann Eckermann, where the term "Weltliteratur" appears for the first time: Nationalliteratur will jetzt nicht viel sagen, die Epoche der Weltliteratur ist an der Zeit, und jeder muss jetzt dazu wirken, diese Epoche zu beschleunigen. ("National literature has no great meaning today; the time has come for world literature, and each and every one of us should work to hasten the day.")
In his will, Nobel declared that it was his "express wish that in awarding the prizes no...