Steinbeck, Forster and the Nobel Prize
Papers relating to the Nobel Prize released at the start of 2016 contained a number of revelations. In 1961, J.R.R. Tolkein was passed over on the grounds of poor prose and narrative technique, and E.M. Forster, whose last novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924, was rejected because he was old, ‘a shadow of his former self.’ Ivo Andrić won the prize that year, and in 1962, John Steinbeck was selected over Robert Graves.
Graves was rendered ineligible because he was a poet, because it would be inappropriate to award an English poet while Ezra Pound was still alive, and because Pound was ruled out because of his war-time support for Nazism. But Steinbeck was a compromise candidate. Despite his social conscience, and the epic scale of books like Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and East of Eden (1952), his work was marred by his ‘tenth-rate philosophising,’ in the words of one of the judges.
At first glance there is little in common between Forster’s effortless studies of upper-class manners, and Steinbeck’s sprawling eulogies of working men. And admittedly, Steinbeck’s insights are often banal. A garage worker in The Grapes of Wrath, who has a missing eye and complains that women cannot love him, is told sternly by the Joads to smarten himself up and try again; in East of Eden, the violent suppression of the Native Americans is justified by their inferior industry and culture. Forster’s comments are subtler, and do not seem to aim for greatness, as Steinbeck’s often do. There is something very humane and pleasing in his depiction of the free and easy Gino, good-naturedly greeting his friends on the streets of San Gimignano, or his depiction of his characters crossing the Alps from Germany, ‘where people are ugly, and drink beer’ to Italy, ‘where people are beautiful, and drink wine.’ Lager? The River Dee? Alcopops?
There are similarities, though. Steinbeck also veers towards social comedy of a kind in The Wayward Bus and Cannery Row, and some of his remarks are also humane and pleasing, as when a child in East of Eden might see a certain rare wild flower, ‘and feel singled out and special all day.’ Perhaps Granma’s advice to Tom Joad not to ‘become a mean mad’ resembles, to some extent, Miss Honeychurch’s advice to Lucy not to make a muddle of her choice of marriage, since there is nothing Miss Honeychurch hates mores than a muddle. Moreover, Forster also achieves something like epic in A Passage to India, which begins with an insect annoying an elderly Englishwoman, and ends with a portrait of India as a continent. There is a zest and humour, a kind of elasticity, in the prose of both.
Judges and editors are forced to choose, to make fine distinctions of quality and taste between writers, when readers are encouraged to expand their tastes to enjoy as many good writers as possible. In competitions, the behaviour can seem almost naive, as winners are selected for attention and praise which, as judges frequently remark, their competitors do not deserve any less. In critics, such distinctions can become an end in themselves, and the subtlety of descriptive criticism is lost in the snobbish insistence that Saul Bellow is a better writer than John Updike because his work is harder to understand. This does violence to the humility of a writer like Forster, who insisted that he was ‘not a great writer,’ and who in Aspects of the Novel presents writing as a deeply collaborative and social exercise. Most of the writers I mix with want to be acknowledged for their qualities, not for the failings of their colleagues. The writers I have met who insist on their greatness for the most part are not very good.