Nobel Not Noble

Nobel Not Noble
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No Prize for the Swedish Academy

LITERARY EVENTS SELDOM make it to the headlines or prime- time news slots. They remain confined to the last pages of magazines, and ‘special mentions’ on TV. But the recent ‘breaking news’ headline, ‘Nobel Prize in Literature 2018 cancelled after sexual assault scandal’, sent the literary world into a tizzy.

But to step back a bit, who is it that actually awards these prizes? The Nobel Prize website helpfully tells us: ‘On 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes, the Nobel Prizes. As described in Nobel’s will one part was dedicated to ‘the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’.’

It is useful to remember that this is not the first time since the prize was introduced in 1901 that there has been no ‘winner’. It was not awarded on seven occasions: in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943, because ‘none of the works under consideration’ were deemed to further the ‘ideal’ cause. Thanks to the far-reaching effects of #MeToo, 2018 has the distinction of being the year the award has been cancelled not for reasons of war, but male behaviour instead.

There are 18 members of the Swedish Academy. Sara Danius, elected in 2013, was its first chairwoman. Katarina Frostenson, a Swedish poet, became a member in 1992; her French husband, the photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, has been accused by 18 women of improper sexual behaviour. Frostenson and Jean-Claude Arnault also ran a cultural club, Forum, that receives funding from the Swedish Academy. In an arcane gymkhana kind of way, the members of the Academy are for life and not for a tenure. They can be replaced only on death (or close). When Danius resigned, others including Frostenson followed suit. With vacancies in the Academy, its quorum was jeopardised and all business suspended. It is also a pity that a wife was thrown under the bus for the follies of her husband.

This scandal in the Swedish Academy brings to the fore not only its dealings, but also raises a more fundamental question; who needs a Nobel Prize of Literature? And with no provision for resigning, members of the Academy risk becoming as relevant as the chief resident of Buckingham Palace. Yes, 114 Nobel Laureates are happy to have won the money and recognition, but how can a group of people decide the merits of an author over countless other authors? One will agree that the act of writing a book is not the same as partaking in a sport. Writing should never be a contest. It is not about outperforming others in the field.

Despite these reservations—and the debate around who wins the Nobel Prize of Literature and who doesn’t, who should and who shouldn’t—the Prize does have value. It gives writers recognition. A recent example would be the Russian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Her oral history narrative Secondhand Time is an outstanding work of reportage, and without the Nobel (2015) it would not have got the attention it deserves. The Prize gives authors exposure, it makes their books sell, and that is important. Sure, the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world don’t need an Academy to take their books to the people, but most authors would benefit from such a famous award.

The recent scandal is a timely reminder that the Swedish Academy needs rescuing, but the importance of the Prize itself remains.