The Nobels' Biggest Surprise
Let's just admit straight out that the Nobel people relish a surprise far more than the average world-renowned prize-granting organization does -- and far more, too, than do many of the interested parties they startle with their choices.
This year, as ever, the primary reaction to the naming of new laureates has been grumbling and snark. On NPR, 1986 laureate Elie Wiesel's initial response to President Obama's peace prize was graceless ("It's certainly strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate"), while in The Washington Post a "prominent editor and writer in New York" suggested that Herta Müller's win over authors like Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie tarnishes the literature honor. "If the Nobel prize committee awarded the medicine prize like this, we'd still have polio," he grumped.
But Müller's victory is part of a happy trend this year: As AFP reports, this is the best year ever for female laureates. Of the 39 women who've won in the 109-year history of the prize, four won this week, three of them in science (take that, Larry Summers!). That's just north of 10 percent of all female recipients, and exactly 10 percent of the 40 Nobels ever bestowed on women, two of which went to Marie Curie (um, Larry?). Women make up 36 percent of this year's laureates, and prizes in three of the five categories go entirely or in part to women.
The stats on that matter -- not out of so-called political correctness but because of the widespread tendency to downgrade or dismiss women's work, whatever it happens to be, rather than take it as seriously as men's work is automatically taken. The brilliant Nancy Franklin expressed one tiny facet of that disparity this way recently in The New Yorker:
Chick lit [...] gets a lot less respect than the male equivalent, which people tend to approach as if it were automatically more artful, more written. Women write "thinly veiled accounts"; men write "romans à clef." Women writers may have a room of their own, but men who thrash around in front of the mirror and record their every failure, humiliation, moue, and excretion for an audience's consumption still own the house, even if all they do in it is lie on the couch--and then write about it.
It's not an even playing field, not in literature or elsewhere, so it's significant when women win. It's progress. Every victory is a reminder not only of what an individual woman has achieved, but of what other women can aspire to achieve. Being recognized on the world stage is no small thing; just ask Elie Wiesel and that bitter, nameless writer-editor. So if this is what a Nobel laureate looks like, good.
Update, Oct. 12: The numbers for women got even better today with a Nobel in economics for Elinor Ostrom, the first woman ever to win the economics prize. She shares the category with Oliver E. Williamson. So that's five women this year (12.5 percent of all female laureates, 38.5 percent of this year's winners), in four of six categories. Not bad. Not bad at all.