How to win a Nobel Prize: Alumna Sara Danius shares inside secrets
Ever dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize? At the Nasher Museum Wednesday, the woman behind the selection process explained how the decision is made.
Sara Danius, who earned her Ph.D. at Duke in 1997, is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which determines who will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first woman to hold the position, Danius presides over the academy and announces the winners each year. Her talk—entitled "How to Get a Nobel Prize in Literature"—unpacked the criteria by which the Academy selects its annual winner and discussed issues surrounding recent recipients of the prestigious award—including the controversy over last year's awardee, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
President Richard Brodhead introduced Danius by expressing his fascination with her role.
"You alone are equipped to tell us, if in fact you are willing to tell us, the answer to the question propounded in the title of your talk," Brodhead said. "Please tell us, because we all want to win it.”
Regarding the award, Danius explained that an individual is recognized not just for a single work but for a career's worth of accomplishments.
She noted the original criteria set forth by Alfred Nobel’s will—that the laureate be someone who has produced “outstanding work in an idealistic direction” and has conferred the greatest possible benefit to mankind.
Danius discussed at length the two most recent winners, selected since she took over as permanent secretary in 2015—Svetlana Alexievich and Bob Dylan.
Alexievich is a Belarusian writer best known for “War’s Unwomanly Face,” her 1985 book on women in World War II. She has been called the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize—although she does not describe herself as one.
“It takes more than historical insights,” Danius said in praise of Alexievich. “It takes a writer who has a genius for exploring irony. Dramatic irony, as well as historical irony, and to put both to brilliant literary effect.”
The Swedish Academy garnered more media attention than usual last year when it, with Danius at the helm, announced songwriter Bob Dylan as the 2016 prize winner. Danius gently pushed back against those who would call the decision “bold” or “courageous."
In particular, she argued that the Western literary tradition has its roots in performance and music, citing the works of legendary Greek poet Sappho as well as Homer’s compositions. These works were meant to be performed rather than read silently.
“He is a historical archivist, stubbornly loyal to the tradition. And at the same time, he is an artist who continuously reinvents himself,” Danius said of Dylan. “Time and time again, he crops up as new and surprising personas, sometimes even astonishing ones. He is a committed caretaker of the grand tradition, and he is hard to beat at his game.”
Danius also debunked the frenzy about Dylan's decision not to accept the award in Sweden.
“First of all, one should never believe what one reads in the press,” Danius said. “I called Dylan’s manager, on the very same day that I announced the prize, and he was very nice and forthcoming person, and he said ‘we’re absolutely thrilled over here’ and I said ‘well that’s great, we’re thrilled too.’"
Danius said she was unfazed in the several days between that initial call and when Dylan eventually returned the call. When Dylan did get back to her, Danius explained, he said “of course” he would accept the prize, and that he was unfortunately in the middle of a tour. Dylan finally received the award earlier this week.
“It’s not the first time in history that the person decides not to go to the Nobel ceremony,” Danius said. “There’s absolutely no must. We don’t award the Nobel Prize in Literature because we want people to visit Stockholm. We award them because of what they have achieved.”
Danius also spoke fondly of her time at the University. At the end of the talk, she was honored by being inducted into the Duke Graduate School's Few-Glasson Alumni Society, which was established last year.
“I feel very grateful and very proud to be a Duke student," she said. "I think that was one of the best decisions I've ever made, to go to Duke and to stay at Duke until I was finished with my Ph.D.”