photo courtesy the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, UofT
In 1935, there was no Nobel Prize for literature because no work was deemed worthy. In 2018, there will be no prize because those giving the award were the unworthy ones.
The Swedish Academy announced that it would not present a prize in the literature category for 2018, though it is not canceling the award altogether; the organization will award both a 2018 and a 2019 prize next year. Apart from the world wars, there has been only one year with no Nobel Prize for literature, and that was more than 80 years ago. This is only the eighth time the award has been delayed.
We should probably be a little surprised that this system has worked even this well for this long, considering how much society’s values and mores have changes in the 123 years since Alfred Nobel’s will established the prizes. Nobel himself would probably be stunned to know that no award would be presented this year not because of a dearth of worthy literature or because of the actions of any member of the Swedish Academy, but because of the alleged actions of an academy member’s husband. (For that matter, Nobel would probably be shocked that an academy member would have a husband in the first place.)
On its website, the Swedish Academy said the decision to postpone the award was based on “the currently diminished Academy and the reduced public confidence in the Academy.” These circumstances grew out of the allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer. Eighteen women have come forward to accuse Arnault of sexual assault, and witnesses also claim he groped Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria at an academy event; Arnault has denied all of the allegations.
The academy has now stated that “unacceptable behavior in the form of unwanted intimacy” took place, but did not name Arnault and emphasized that most of the committee was ignorant of the behavior. The organization said it would hand over a legal firm’s internal report to the authorities, though it was unaware of any legally punishable sexual offenses.
Arnault is not, himself, a member of the Swedish Academy – but he is married to one, Katarina Frostenson. Some of the alleged incidents also reportedly happened on academy property. An initial vote not to remove Frostenson sparked public outcry. In conjunction with accusations of conflict of interest and leaking winners’ names (also allegedly Arnault’s doing), the controversy triggered a wave of resignations, including those of Frostenson and the head of the academy, Sara Danius.
Only 11 of the academy’s 18 members remain for now, which may prove a challenge, since existing rules require a quorum of 12 to vote in new members. Further complicating matters is the fact that, technically, members of the Swedish Academy cannot resign at all; they can simply refuse to take part in the academy’s work. King Carl XVI Gustaf, the academy’s patron, has said he intends to change the rules to allow the resignations to become official.
In anything as subjective and as inherently political as a richly endowed and prestigious international award, there are bound to be some misfires. For literature, these controversies have often centered on perceived snubs, including Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few. Media controversies may arise at the time over an arguably worthy person who does not receive the award, or an arguably unworthy person who does. Consider the angst that Bob Dylan’s 2016 award triggered in some circles for a recent example.
But Nobel Prizes have gone wrong in much more serious ways, especially in some of the other categories. (The Swedish Academy only awards the literature prize; The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards physics, chemistry and the memorial prize in economic sciences, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards physiology or medicine, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the prize for peace). When considered collectively, those who award Nobel Prizes have made real mistakes, not simply subjective errors of judgment about the quality of a laureate’s work.
From the perspective of 2018, I would argue the most serious misfire was the 1991 peace prize to Aung San Suu Kyi. At the time, she was under house arrest as a political prisoner of the military junta that controlled the country that had been known as Burma until its new leaders renamed it Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to attend the ceremony to accept her award.
Today, however, Aung San Suu Kyi is the first and incumbent State Counsellor of Myanmar, effectively the head of the government despite a constitutional clause preventing her from becoming president. She presides over a military that is widely reported to be violently persecuting the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, in what the U.N. has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, leading to calls for the Nobel Committee to revoke her prize. If something is to embarrass those connected to the Nobel Prizes this year, I would suggest it should probably be the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi retains her award, rather than the alleged actions of Arnault and the pseudo-resignations some of the Swedish Academy’s members.
Another serious mistake was 2009’s peace prize award to Barack Obama. At the time, he had barely taken office, and his primary qualification for the peace prize seemed to be the fact he was not George W. Bush. Today, nearly half a million deceased Syrians would probably argue (if they could) that Obama’s appeasement policies did not constitute true peacemaking.
But for good or ill, the people who award the Nobel Prizes must live with their own track record. Mistakes, even serious ones, only mildly tarnish the prestige of the awards overall, considering their long history and prominence. We need to see the Nobel Prizes for what they are: the work of men and women on a committee, limited by the vision and standards of their time, prone to compromise and ultimately fallible.
We should not ascribe to the Nobel, or to any prize, talismanic properties. Nor should we dismiss honors out of hand as meaningless. Instead, we can recognize that the distinction it represents is real, if not always really deserved.