We all love a prize, and a scandal, and a chance to shake our heads when the great and good fall into disgrace. So for the past few weeks, the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, has offered excellent entertainment.
Instead of wondering whether this year’s prize would finally go to Philip Roth, we instead had the excitement of asking whether it would be awarded at all. On Friday, we got the answer: The Academy will postpone the 2018 prize until next year. The real comedy, however, is that it has taken accusations of sexual abuse — directed not at a member of the academy, but at the husband of a member — to call the prize into question. It requires very little reflection to see that this international award for literature never had, nor ever could have any credibility at all. It is nonsense.
To recount the scandal in detail would be a red herring, but here is an outline: Katarina Frostenson, a poet, became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1992. Together with her French husband, the photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, she also ran a cultural club, Forum, that receives funding from the Swedish Academy. Amid the “Me Too” movement, 18 women have come forward accusing Mr. Arnault of improper sexual behavior, some taking place at Forum itself.
Eighteen is a recurring number in this story. There are 18 members of the Swedish Academy, which was formed in 1786 to promote the “purity, strength and sublimity of the Swedish language;” only in 1900 was it called on, by Alfred Nobel’s legacy, to choose the finest literary oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” anywhere in the world, something that obliged the Swedish purists to spend much of their time reading in foreign languages.
In line with an antique vision of endeavor and human identity, the Academy’s statute has no provision for members resigning; like knighted lords or ordained priests, they are in it for life, anointed, as it were, with the capacity to promote Swedish purity and hand out $1 million or so every year to a fine writer whose work can be construed as “idealistic.”
Such is the world’s eagerness that some solid ground be established in the shifting sands of aesthetic taste, such our desire to have our own literary favorites crowned and “canonized,” such the ambition of writers themselves to believe that they have joined the “greats,” that the Nobel has become the centerpiece ceremony in our annual literary liturgy, source of endless speculation and heated controversy. In the months before the October announcement of the winner, bookmakers do a brisk trade. Along with sexual assault, Mr. Arnault is also accused of leaking the names of seven winners and thus allowing acquaintances to profit from bets. Though Ms. Frostenson can hardly be reproached for connivance in her husband’s groping, she is suspected of complicity in the leaks.
The Swedish Academy had been trying to reform its image. Dying men were replaced with women (there are now seven in the 18) and in 2015, the academy got its first chairwoman, Sara Danius. It was Ms. Danius who moved last month to clarify the institution’s relationship with Forum and have Ms. Frostenson expelled. But members split and the motion didn’t pass.
Apparently, the controversy had ignited tensions between an old guard and a new. Ms. Danius resigned as chairwoman and withdrew from the Academy’s activities; so did Ms. Frostenson and various others. But since they can’t actually resign and hence can’t be replaced, the Academy hardly has a quorum to get its business done. There has been much hand-wringing by the Nobel Foundation, which oversees the prizes, and the Academy’s patron, King Carl XVI Gustaf — not to mention international literati who see a favorite toy falling apart.
And yet, why would misbehavior or bickering make a person any less able to judge the quality of a work of literature? You don’t have to be a saint to recognize a good book. And why would the fact that the Academy’s members are old or young, men or women, make it any more (or less) credible when it decided to confer greatness on a writer? I have met Per Wastberg, who leads the four-person team within the Academy that does the groundwork for the prize. He is charming, industrious and absolutely serious, certainly as well qualified as anyone to handle this task. It is the task itself that makes no sense.
Literature is not tennis or football, where international competition makes sense. It is intimately tied to the language and culture from which it emerges. Literary style distinguishes itself by its distance from the other styles that surround it, implying a community of readers with a shared knowledge of other literary works, of standard language usage and cultural context. What sense does it make for a group from one culture — be it Swedish, American, Nigerian or Japanese — to seek to compare a Bolivian poet with a Korean novelist, an American singer-songwriter with a Russian playwright, and so on? Why would we even want them to do that?
As the Swedes squirm with embarrassment, the real butts of this farce are the critics who insist on taking the Nobel seriously. One might as well debate the choices of Roman Catholic cardinals when they announce a new saint. It really is time to grow up and concentrate on the books themselves, without this razzmatazz of winners and losers.
Tim Parks is a writer and translator.