11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature

In the next few days, a writer will be elevated into the literary pantheon by the Swedish Academy, which will bestow upon him or her the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. The selection will most likely set off a flurry of commentary by the literati as well as handwringing by those passed over.

An essay by Charles McGrath in the New York Times Book Review, however, suggests that there is a way to game the system. It turns out that the Swedish Academy is a remarkably insular organization, being composed entirely of Swedes and primarily dedicated to safeguarding the "purity, vigor and majesty" of the Swedish language. Given the body's name this should not be surprising, but being reminded of it somehow undercuts its authority to make pronouncements on world literature, Alfred Nobel's will notwithstanding. More interestingly, in at least two cases that McGrath discusses, the Nobel went to a writer whose Swedish translator sat on the board and led the lobbying effort.

The course of action for a savvy publisher is clear: make sure your promising writers are translated into Swedish (even if that country doesn't otherwise fit into your distribution plans) and make sure the translation is done by one of the 18 academy members.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is just one example of a larger and more interesting phenomenon: how elite gate-keeping institutions are influenced by personal connections. For instance, when nominating committees of elite organizations gather behind closed doors, the first question generally asked regarding serious candidates is, "Who here knows this person?" Of course, personal knowledge is a valuable thing and provides greater nuance and more dimensions along which a committee can evaluate candidates. But the underlying assumption is that if a person is worth knowing he or she will be known -- an assumption that attributes a certain level of omniscience to the nominating committee that may or may not be justified, depending on its own level of insularity.

The human fallibility of these screening mechanisms are all the more important to remember in a time when we are awash in invitation-only gatherings -- the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Aspen Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, the TED Conference -- that constantly reconfigure the velvet rope around those deemed worth knowing. The rationale, of course, is that that there is inherent value in corralling a bunch of very smart, highly networked people together in, say, a Swiss ski village, and seeing what results. That may be true. But it also has the effect of closing off the network to those who could benefit from it the most -- those one or two rungs below the threshold. Both the institutions themselves and society as a whole would be better off if greater focus were placed on connecting those at the top with those poised to break out of the middle, rather than segmenting the upper echelon into finer and finer calibrations of exclusivity.

Until then, I'll be catching up on my Borges, Tolstoy and Auden -- none of whom ever got called to Stockholm.