The Nobel Prize is the world’s biggest and most important prize. Or must I say ‘was’?
Most people know the Nobel Prize. If you’re a scientist, it’s something to aspire to. Who wouldn’t want to be mentioned along with the likes of Marie Curie or Albert Einstein? Thought so. There are five plus one prizes: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology & Medicine, Peace, and Literature. The sixth prize, the Economics Prize, isn’t originally mentioned in Nobel’s will but was instituted by the Swedish Federal Reserve in 1968 to honor the memory of Alfred Nobel.
You never satisfy everyone…
There is always criticism against the prizes, and who they are awarded to. From a generic criticism that the prizes come far too late in a researcher’s life (which is not what Nobel had in mind), to specific criticism of particular winners. In recent years, it was particularly the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee which has been criticized for their choices. Many voices mentioned the political dimension of the prize and how the Norwegian committee has been tainted by local infighting among Norwegian politicians. Here in the Nordics, we read a lot about that, but from what I gather, most people abroad don’t seem to be bothered.
The Literature Prize, however… It is debated far outside the immediate circles and the winners are questioned pretty much every year. Why not him? Why not this country/language/culture? Why no woman? Why not Bob Dylan? Well actually, that one was answered in 2015 and raised even more questions… Now picture this on top of the ongoing discussions about the winners themselves:
Sex, wine & a “jolly good fellow”
This isn’t the first time the Swedish Academy is in the news. In 1989, when the Academy refused to criticize Iran for the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, three members “quit”, which until this week was not legally possible. Their chairs remained empty. One has since died, but Kerstin Ekman‘s chair #15 is still unoccupied, after all these decades. This week, the King changes the rules (which is also subject of some debate in Sweden) and now allows members to leave the Academy or – if they haven’t been there for two years or more – to be tossed out.
The current crisis isn’t necessarily homemade, although it’s been made worse by the members of the Academy. In the wake of the #MeToo debate, eighteen (!) women retold Sweden’s largest newspaper their stories of how they’d been sexually abused and even raped by the husband of one of the Academy members. The wife is a very well respected poet. Her husband, however, has had a reputation in artist’s circles for decades as being a pig, a real chauvinist (or “Savoir Vivre” as one of his friends and Academy members puts it). So it wasn’t a long shot for the journalist to seek out these women. There are countless more than the eighteen who finally told their stories and broke the news. Just this week, it was reported that even our own Crown Princess had been assaulted. He put his hands on Her Royal Highness’s ass, all the while the King was apparently seeing it happen. They escorted him out, but nothing happened beyond that, which is in a way women’s story of #MeToo until last year…
The secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, began an investigation and asked a law firm to look into the allegations. There were also rumors that he’d shared the names of previous winners with outsiders (apparently all spouses always know the winner beforehand, which isn’t really a surprise.) There were also allegations of economical winning and bias, which are currently being investigated by the authorities.
The Academy falls apart
Within the Academy, how to deal with all this created a huge rift and as the scandal blew up, three male members left. Since then, the secretary and an additional member have left the ranks, leaving it a sad bunch of ten people rather than the usual eighteen. And among them are only two women. The average age is high, some of the members are in their eighties. The oldest will be ninety-four in a month’s time. Some of them suffer from dementia or are extremely senile.
The infighting is extremely public these days, and the members have been very public, despite their credo of “what happens in the Academy stays in the Academy!” Which is detrimental to their many tasks. They’re a rich organization, with tons of real estate and they hand out many prizes every year. The Swedish Academy is also responsible for charting the Swedish Language, and the Swedish Vocabulary, charting hundreds of thousands of Swedish words and how they were/are used in our language. As a linguist, and having worked near this project as a student, I can’t express how important that work is (it’s no coincidence that Casper, one of my protagonists, is a professor in data linguistics at the University of Gothenburg, where much of the practical work was done.)
What about the Nobel Prize?
Apparently, there are only five names left for consideration for this year’s prize which is announced early in October. However, the Academy announced this morning that they will not hand out a prize this year, after consultation with the Nobel Foundation, who is overall responsible for the prize and the prize money (roughly one million USD.) Instead, they will hand out two prizes next year.
Here’s my question as an author: who would’ve wanted a prize this year? Any female winner would be accused of being the token #MeToo winner, rather than a worthy literary genius. A man would be seen as “typical” for such a backward organization where rapists are considered “having a good reputation” and whatever literary qualities a winner would bring to the table, they’d be questioned, as most writers have left the Academy. Those who are left are linguists, priests, and philosophers. And they’re only TEN. And they’re old. Not to mention the fact that what some of them have said in public in recent weeks would have any decent author run the other way, rather than accepting a prize from them.
Would you want the Nobel Prize this year?
I think this is the question at the core of it all, and while it’s a sad day for literature, this was a good decision. Personally, I’d have scratched the prize for this year altogether, rather than handing it out next year, because the 2018 Prize will always be tainted. Among scholars of literature, the Nobel Prize isn’t “equal”, some are regarded as ‘secondary years’, even in Sweden. The fact that one of the very first prizes was awarded to Selma Lagerlöf was impressive, although it did little to help the prize abroad. But she was an amazing writer and a woman. The fact that she was later voted into the Academy also decreased the value of her prize. The worst ones? Probably the awards in 1974 when the Academy rewarded two of its own, again! But there are definitely others, just read the linked Wikipedia article. You can’t really compete in art, so… Even the modern approach to award the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan backfired in 2016, as Dylan didn’t give a flying fuck about the award and didn’t come to Stockholm to meet the King. He finally accepted the Prize money by giving the mandatory lecture at the last minute. But it was an embarrassing moment for the Academy.
So would you want one? From a splinter Academy who thinks that rapists have a “good reputation”, a “sense for Savoir Vivre” and “lots to teach our young”?
Is there hope for the future?
This is really the big question. Will things quiet down? Abroad most likely. Here in Sweden? We’ll see. Eight members must either be re-engaged or replaced. This will need to happen before the end of the year. There’s a lot of protocol around this and new members are only admitted once a year, in early December in what is a bit of a ceremony. So finding eight new members, or to get the six who recently jumped ship to re-engage? Given all the bad things that have been said, I doubt that. Plus there’s always the chance that mother nature swoops in and weeds out some of the older members… 94, 91… This isn’t the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are mostly figureheads with hundreds of staffers doing the real work. The Academy is a small organization, and the members pull a lot of the weight. Just saying…
I think the Academy has done what they had to, under the Damoclean sword of losing the privilege to award the Nobel Prize altogether. The real work starts now, and given the ten remaining members, I for one remain skeptical. I just don’t see any progress in most of the ten “remainers”. But who knows? This article was just about the Nobel Prize, not the Academy itself. I could write a lot more, but I won’t bore you with that. Not today.
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Hans M Hirschi