Why is there no 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature?

Normally I would be posting the details of the Nobel Prize for Literature about now, but this year there is no Nobel prize for Literature, it has been cancelled; what the heck is going on?

There has been rather a lot of drama, what has been happening might even qualify at the plot of a novel or two.

The Essence of the Controversy

It all revolves around author Jean-Claude Arnault who is married to Nobel board member Katarina Frostenson.

The Facts …

  • The sexual assault and rape accusations levelled against Mr Arnault are not just rumour, it is a legal fact – Last Monday (1st Oct) he was found guilty of raping a woman in a Stockholm apartment by a Swedish court on Monday and sentenced to prison. It is not one isolated case, he has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by 18 women. Additionally there is an allegation that some of these incidents took place on Swedish Academy properties.
  • He has also been accused to have leaked details of the winner of the literature prize seven time since 1996 so that friends could win bets.
  • In April, 3 of the 18 members of the committee that picks the Nobel Literature winner openly declared that they would refuse to participate in committee proceedings as a protest against the refusal by the chair of the committee, Sara Danius, to take any action.
  • The Academy responded to that by removing her, thus bringing the number of empty seats to 4.
  • Ms Frostenson, Mr Arnault’s wife, voluntarily agreed to withdraw from participating in the academy, bringing the total of empty seats to 5
  • Due to the Rushdie affair, there were already 2 other empty seats, and so that left only 11 of the 18. There rests the problem because they needed a quorum of 12 to be able to formally vote on any proposals to place new members into the empty seats.
  • In theory they only need 8 to vote for a winner, but their credibility and authority was deemed to have been too greatly impacted to be able to proceed.

The bottom line is that it is all a horrendous mess. In response, the Academy have kicked the can down the road by formally announcing on 4th May that they would announce the 2018 winner at the same time as the announcement of the 2019 winner next year …

Why will the Nobel Prize in Literature not be awarded in 2018?

“The institution that has selected the Nobel Laureates in Literature since 1901, the Swedish Academy, has been undergoing a crisis of confidence in recent months. The resulting situation has had an adverse effect on the Nobel Prize. By announcing their decision on 4 May, the members of the Academy are showing that they understand the seriousness of the situation and will be giving themselves time to make a number of necessary changes. It is both an unusual and difficult decision not to award a Nobel Prize, but in this situation we believe that the Academy’s decision was for the best and that it will help protect the reputation of the Nobel Prize in the long run.”

What will happen in 2019?

“The Swedish Academy’s goal is to make its decision on the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature and to announce it together with the 2019 prize. We hope that this will be the case, but it depends on the Swedish Academy restoring its trust.”

Will this affect the work on the other prizes?

“No. The Swedish Academy’s decision does not affect the work of selecting laureates for the prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace and Economic Sciences. The selection processes for these prizes are handled by other independent institutions: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet and the Norwegian Nobel Committee. They will work as usual in 2018 and award the other prizes as planned.”

What happens Now?

The perception of it all is well summed by by Andrew Brown who writes in the Guardian …

The scandal has elements of a tragedy, in which people who set out to serve literature and culture discovered they were only pandering to writers and the people who hang around with them. The pursuit of excellence in art was entangled with the pursuit of social prestige. The academy behaved as if the meals in its clubhouse were as much an accomplishment as the work that got people elected there.

The academy had thought it stood for the culture of TS Eliot: somewhat masculine and unashamedly elitist, in which power is channelled in the service of tradition. It turns out to be much more like the culture of an ageing rock star: smug, macho, with its cool self-importance armoured by money and fame. The destruction of the academy’s reputation is not just damaging to an old, odd, Swedish institution, but also to the ideals it upheld, and to the dream of a global high culture that the Nobel prize represents.

As to how they get out of this mess, I honestly have no idea. I suspect the response will be one that involves closing the shutters and in some darkened room out of public view they will apply a bit of spit and polish, then reemerge as the new cleansed squeaky clean academy.

Will that be enough to reestablish a reputation?

Probably not, but publishers and authors need such awards. On the surface it is about the recognition of a lifetime effort in a literary context. The award is however not really driven by that at all. It is an immensely powerful marketing tool and a highly potent publicity spotlight. The literary world of authors and publishers can not permit it to wither and fade. To use the well-coined phrase, financially it is too big to be permitted to fail.

The most probable outcome is that next year there will indeed be two Nobel Literary winner announcements garnished with a delicate hint of procedural Amnesia that quietly brushes over 2018.

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