Do We Still Need the Nobel Prize in Literature?

After last year’s scandal the Academy is awarding two prizes — and attempting to change

Rape, infighting, secrets, financial malpractice; the scandal surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature began in November 2017 when Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published allegations by eighteen women that they had been sexually assaulted by Jean-Claude Arnault, a 71-year-old Swedish-French photographer. Arnault was married to Katarina Frostenson, a member of the Swedish Academy, and over the following months the man who boasted to be the “19th member of the committee” was accused of 20 years of sexual assaults, including incidents at properties owned by the Academy—not to mention other illegal activities, such as leaking the names of soon-to-be laureates, which are subject to heavy betting. By this past October, when the Stockholm district court unanimously sentenced Arnault to two years in prison for rape, seven of the academy’s eighteen members had already quit in protest, and no prize was awarded for 2018. As permanent secretary Anders Olsson stated, “We find it necessary to commit time to recovering public confidence … before the next laureate can be announced. This is out of respect for previous and future literature laureates, the Nobel Foundation and the general public.”

The hiatus is over; this week the Nobel Foundation announced that it will award two prizes for literature in 2019. It is also taking steps to address some of the issues raised by the Arnault scandal, like appointing five external members to help select the Nobel laureates, considering a time limit on membership, and reviewing how to handle resignations and expulsions. For the first time, it will eject any members who are subject to conflict of interest or criminal investigations.

No conflict of interest, no criminals. These are certainly steps in the right direction, yet they’re so obvious and overdue that you have to wonder what exactly we’ve been so impressed by all these years. It feels a bit like getting to Oz only to realize the Wizard is a tiny man hiding behind a green curtain, shouting “look away!”—though in this case the Wizard is an exclusive group of Academy members who serve for life and who have kept the Nobel prize process a closely guarded secret. The group is so small that when seven members resigned last year, it caused a crisis and left less than the minimum twelve-person quorum to pick a winner. We know that the Academy reviews around 200 nominations in February, then announces a shortlist in May, and a final five in the summer, but the full explanation of why a winner was chosen is sealed in the Nobel archives, only to be released 50 years later. During the scandal the Nobel Foundation itself criticized the Academy for how it has “cultivated a closed culture over a long period of time.”

The Nobel Prize has been awarded in five categories since 1895, and over that time it has gained a serious amount of cultural cachet. You probably respect a Nobel laureate even if you don’t know much, if anything, about the actual criteria considered for the prize. Nobel stipulated that the prize for literature should honor the person who produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” It’s a vague directive, and one that has caused many issues of interpretation. Sara Danius, who was the Permanent Secretary of the Academy until she resigned last year, once told an audience at Duke, her alma matter, “What does it take to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? What do I know? I don’t know. All I know is that the criteria are simple, but tough. You get awarded not for a single work, but for a life’s work. You are expected to come up with something new in terms of content or form or both. And that is how you win the Nobel Prize in Literature.” In short, it’s an easily manipulated set of standards, and we just have to accept that the Academy knows what it’s doing. The problem is, that’s no longer obvious.

We just have to accept that the Academy knows what it’s doing. The problem is, that’s no longer obvious.

So is it time to get rid of the Nobel prize in literature? At minimum, after 124 years it’s worth reconsidering what it’s adding to the cultural landscape. Take, for example, how in the same year that the Nobel went without a literature prize, the National Book Foundation reinstated the National Book Award for Translated Literature. That prize was last given in 1983, which isn’t surprising given America’s disinterest in translated literature; less than 3% of books published here are in translation, which hugely lags behind the rest of the world. Reinstating the prize was a practical, positive way to boost interest in translated works. As Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the Foundation who oversaw the addition, said, “The National Book Foundation is an organization that is about the celebration of the best books in America and about expanding the audience for them, so if we believe strongly that translated work should be read and we believe strongly in the expansion of the American audience for books, how in the world could we ignore that?” The Nobel prize in literature, by contrast, often seems to exist for its own sake. Its closed circuitry represents much of what is wrong with publishing: a small group of privileged people get to decide what constitutes great literature. They have the power to shape the literary landscape, but they keep the reasons for their choices secret, which allows for bias and discrimination. There are also times, notably when Bob Dylan won the 2017 award, when it feels like their decisions have less to do with promoting literature, and more to do with seeking attention.

Another counterexample to the Nobel’s way of operating is the Women’s prize for fiction, which recently included a non-binary transgender author on its longlist for the first time in the prize’s history. This isn’t tokenism; recognizing writers who aren’t cisgendered, white, English-speaking men is crucial for any literary body that wants to be legitimate today. There are too many great writers who exist outside those criteria for the public to accept their exclusion without wondering how an awarding body is defining excellence. Only fourteen of 100 recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature have been women, few are writers of color, and English has more than double the number of prizes than the next most awarded language, French.

The Nobel Prize in literature must become more transparent, more inclusive, and more positive, or it risks being nothing at all. This would damage writers, because while the Nobel comes with a generous amount of prize money (the amount varies each year; in 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro won 9 million Swedish Krona, or about $968,805 US dollars), the general prestige (not to mention boost in book sales and speaking engagements) comes from gaining the title “Nobel laureate,” the worth of which grows or diminishes with the integrity of the Academy. It won’t be an easy task. The Arnault scandal exposed the bullshit that underpins so many organizations; the cattiness, the pomp, the self-reverence, the misuse of influence. After the many #metoo era revelations, the public is sick of powerful people who use their social status like a blunt force object to cow others or worse, and they are growing skeptical of institutions that conflate secrecy with prestige. The Academy doesn’t need to publicize the minutes of every meeting it holds, but it should be more transparent about the criteria behind choosing laureates. Its members have countless years of experience evaluating literature, so why not share their thought process with the public? Let the public into the joy of creating literary heroes, and honor those heroes from all corners of the globe.

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