Last week was a difficult and complicated one in the book world, dear readers, as two news stories disrupted some long-established status quo’s, and unsettled many assumptions about spaces and people we might have held dear. Conversations about these topics are by no means easy, and under no circumstances are pleasant. But they are necessary, and, to many, vitally important ones to have. So let’s make some space to have them.
The first story is regarding the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature–or the lack thereof. On Friday, the Nobel committed announced that there would be no prize awarded this year, after a series of resignations left the eighteen-person panel eight members short. “The present decision was arrived at in view of the currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence in the academy,” the body, founded by King Gustav III in 1786 and still under royal patronage, said in a statement.
At the root of the institution’s unprecedented crisis are a raft of wide-ranging allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, a photographer and leading cultural figure in Sweden, who is married to Katarina Frostenson, an academy member and author.
Last November, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published detailed allegations by 18 women accusing Arnault of sexual harassment and physical abuse over a period of more than 20 years, in France and Sweden and including at properties owned by the academy.
According to reports, the first accusations against Arnault were made in 1996, but remained silenced until mere months ago. Moreover, Arnault and Frostenson ran a club in Stockholm that showcased exhibitions, readings and performances by prominent cultural personalities (including Nobel laureates) for many years, a position that gave Arnault access to the people he victimized. Because the club was funded in part by the Academy, many have cited a conflict of interest. Additionally, it has also been alleged that Arnault may have leaked the names of seven Nobel literature laureates in advance, which is problematic because the name of the winner is the subject of heavy betting.
In and of itself, this story was difficult enough. It was compounded, however, by the Academy’s refusal to take any kind of corrective action when the news became public. Public approbation fell on Frostenson, who is a member of the Nobel Prize panel, and three members of the 18-strong academy resigned last month in protest when she was not expelled. That was followed by several large-scale protests in Sweden, specifically outside the Academy, by people who objected to punishing a woman for the actions of a man. On Friday, April 13, permanent secretary, Sara Danius, the first woman to hold the post since its foundation in 1786, stepped aside after an emergency meeting was called by the Nobel Committee. Although Danius had worked aggressively to clarify the institution’s relationship with Forum and have , she stated that she felt she had lost the confidence of that committee:
“All traditions are not worth preserving,” she told the Swedish press agency TT on Friday, calling on the academy to make ethics a priority, report and prosecute allegations of misconduct and fight male abuse of power and degrading treatment of women. “Caring for a legacy must not mean an arrogance and distance to society at large,” she said.
Danius’ resignation has been met with anger and protest as well, with many arguing, once again, that a woman is being punished as a result of the actions of a man. Following Danius’ departure, three male committee members resigned in protest. Ms. Frostenson has also since resigned.
Technically, committee members are appointed for life, so they can’t actually resign. However, they can refuse to take their chairs, leaving the committee itself too weak–and too affected by recent news stories and subsequent anger–to make any competent decisions regarding awards.
As a result, according to the announcement made on Friday, is that the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for Literature will be awarded in 2019. This is not the first time there has been no award. Since its establishment in 1901, there have been seven years without a prize: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943. The majority of those years, obviously, were during World Wars. The reason for skipping the prize in 1935 has not been disclosed. It has also been “reserved”, meaning that there were no suitable winners, in 1915, 1919, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1936 and 1949. This is the first year, however, that the prize will not be awarded as the result of a scandal.
So, what do we make of this?
There are any number of opinion pieces coming out this week stating that the world is better off, overall, without the Nobel Prize. According to an opinion piece in The New York Times, the idea that people from one country are in any way qualified to judge the cultural products of another is fundamentally ludicrous:
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…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?
Meanwhile, The Atlantic believes that the free market should decide whose books are best:
Good criticism helps people to find the books that will speak to them, but it doesn’t attempt to simply name “the most outstanding work,” in the way the Nobel Prize does. It is impossible to name the single best writer for the same reason that you can’t speak of the single best human being: There are too many different criteria for judgment….A book earns the status of a classic, not because it is approved by a committee or put on a syllabus, but simply because a lot of people like it for a long time. Literary reputation can only emerge on the free market, not through central planning…*
*For the record, the idea that a book “earns the status of a classic…simply because a lot of people like it” is really just not true. People’s opinions are weighted based on their power and influence in society. And writers’ ability to reach wide audiences is also based on their power and privilege. To pretend that there is a fundamental egalitarianism in the production and dissemination of any art form, especially in a capitalist society, is absurd.
Which leads me to another point that can be drawn from this whole situation: nothing is sacred. If anything, the scandal of the 2018 Nobel Prize has forced us to reckon with the fact that the #MeToo movement, that sexual misconduct and abuse of power and taking people’s humanity for granted, is not something that is relegated to a specific industry, or a specific group of people, or that it is a product of a specific place, culture, class, or time. It is a problem inherent across the social and cultural spectrum. And this year without an award provides us sometime to think about that. To realize that awards like the Nobel (and like so many others) largely only recognize the achievements of those who have come before them. Women, People of Color, people who represent non-binary sexual and gender identities, people from working-class backgrounds, people with immigrant and refugee status, all of these people, and many more, have gone unrecognized by awards, and are not considered “classics”–not because of their literary merit, but because of how these awards are structured, and how we come to think about who is qualified to tell stories.
And in thinking about whose stories matter, this year should also force us to realize that everyone’s stories matter–not only those in print, but the ones that we tell each other. The stories about violent, invasive, or abusive actions. The cries for help. Those stories count, and we–as individuals, as members of communities, and as institutions devoted to storytelling–need to do better about listening to them.