The link below is to an article that takes a look at the suspension of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Swedish Academy has announced it will not select a Nobel laureate in literature for 2018. Instead, two laureates will be appointed 2019, one for 2018 and one for 2019. The decision is not unique. The prize has been withheld on no fewer than seven occasions in the past and it has also been postponed for a year five times previously – the last time being in 1949.
The reason for postponing the prize this time, however, is exceptional since it is not related to the academy’s inability to unify behind one single candidate, but is instead the consequence of a more general crisis in the academy in which a number of members resigned their posts over a scandal relating to allegations of sexual harassment made against the husband of one of the members.
According to the academy, the reason for the decision is more specifically the number of members who have withdrawn from participating in its work. Eight members of 18 are no longer academy participants, which will impede its work, and make it hard to evaluate the different authors nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in particular. Another motive for the decision to postpone, the academy’s announcement said, was the necessity to restore the academy’s reputation after a few months filled with accusations and scandal.
Glancing through the list of Nobel Prizes in literature over the years, from the very first that was awarded in 1901 to French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme, to the most recent winner, British author Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017, reveals a mix of world-famous authors and names hardly even remembered today by specialists.
French author François Mauriac, Nobel laureate in 1952, is probably not commonly read anymore, if he ever was. There are also a number of laureates who were rewarded more for their general contributions to human thinking and culture than their skills in literature – persons such as Bertrand Russell (1950), Winston Churchill (1953) and Jean-Paul Sartre, who was selected in 1964 only to decline the prize.
In 1914, when deliberations were upset by the beginning of World War I, the Nobel Prize was withheld. The following year, in 1915, the prize was postponed and was given to the French author Romain Rolland in 1916. The same thing happened in 1918 when the prize was withheld and then the selection of the 1919 laureate, the Swiss author Carl Spitteler, was delayed by a year. To award an author from neutral Switzerland seems to have been safe bet in a time of excited feelings following the end of the war.
In 1935, no prize was awarded and in 1936 it was postponed, because “the Nobel Committee for Literature decided that none of the year’s nominations met the criteria as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel”. The 1936 award went to Eugene O’Neill. The same thing happened again during World War II when no prizes were awarded between 1940 and 1943. In 1944, the prize was again postponed to be given to the Danish author Johannes Jensen in 1945 after the war had ended (the 1945 prize went to Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral). The prize of 1949 was postponed by 12 months because the committee couldn’t find a suitable laureate. The 1949 prize was awarded to William Faulkner in 1950. Since then, Nobel laureates in literature have been selected regularly. But not any more.
The decision to postpone the Nobel Prize in literature 2018 for one year has surprised many commentators. The loss of prestige for the academy is considerable and the decision to postpone the Nobel Prize can only be interpreted as the recognition by the remaining ten members of the academy the need for reform.
The shortlist of authors nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature also changes only slowly from year to year. So the four members of the Nobel Committee for Literature (there should normally be five, but one is among those eight who have left the academy) should already know all about them. The work already done to evaluate earlier shortlisted authors, then, could surely have been used to select a laureate for 2018. So, the decision to postpone the prize should be taken as a sign of how serious the remaining ten members of the Swedish Academy view the turmoil that is disrupting their organisation.
The Nobel Foundation – which is ultimately responsible for administering the intentions of the will of Alfred Nobel – has said it supports the decision made by the Swedish Academy. The foundation has also made it clear that the postponing of the literature prize does not affect other Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and peace.
The links below are to articles reporting on the canceling of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.
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The Swedish Academy is in trouble. The body which bestows the annual Nobel Prize in Literature has been hit by the withdrawal of a number of its members after a row over allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. The crisis came to a head after the decision of the permanent secretary, Sara Danius, to step down on April 12, prompting King Carl XVI Gustaf to intervene, promising reforms to enable to academy to continue.
The academy’s rules don’t allow for members to resign, so disenchanted members withdraw from active participation. Danius’s withdrawal is the first by a permanent secretary in more than than 230 years. It means there are only 11 active members of the academy and the rules require that new members must be elected by 12 members.
The Swedish Academy was established in 1786 to promote the Swedish language by setting standards and developing poetry and other forms of linguistic expression. For a century and more, this was where writers rubbed shoulders with high-ranking officials and aristocrats. But for the past century, the 18 members of the Academy have tended to be well-known writers and academics – a fine family name is no longer enough for entrance.
But apart from this small modernisation in the interests of promoting equality, the Swedish Academy has remained surprisingly stable. There have been scandals and expulsions, most notably that of founding member, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, a director of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Theatre in Stockholm, who was excluded twice – both times for political reasons when Armfelt was forced to flee the country in fear of his life. Another prominent exclusion was that of politician and aristocrat Count Henning Hamilton who resigned after financial wrongdoing.
But overall the academy has been remarkably stable and, when Alfred Nobel’s will stipulated in 1895 that the Nobel Prize in Literature should be decided upon by “the academy in Stockholm”, the organisation received an enormous boost in prestige as well as a financial boost that has allowed it to fund the Nobel Library.
The current crisis actually has its roots in a row as far back as 1989 when members Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten left their chairs after a majority of the academy voted against a proposition to submit an appeal to the Swedish government to engage against the fatwa issued by Iran against Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. In 2015, another member, Lotta Lotass, left her chair for personal reasons.
After Gyllenstein’s death and replacement by Kristina Lugn, this meant that only 16 of the 18 members of the academy were now actively involved in its work. These included five women including Danius the permanent secretary and the poet Katarina Frostenson whose husband Jean-Claude Arnault is reported to have been the subject of numerous complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. These go back as far as 1996 when there is evidence that a young artist called Anna-Karin Bylund contacted the then permanent secretary Sture Allén (confusingly, the permanent secretary actually holds the office for a limited term which varies) with allegations of sexual harassment against Arnault. No action was taken at the time.
Towards the end of 2017, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, 18 women came forward in the Swedish press with further allegations against Arnault, who is not only married to an Academy member but runs the Forum, a club for artists in Stockholm which is subsidised by the Academy. There were also allegations going around that the names of several winners had been leaked in the past, although there is said to be no record of odd betting patterns in Sweden. In the UK, Ladbrokes is reported to have suspended betting on one occasion after large amounts of money were placed on the eventual winner. Arnault’s lawyer Bjorn Hurtig told Reuters that his client denied all the allegations, including that of being the source of leaks.
According to reports of the affair, moves to expel Frostenson were frustrated by the Academy’s dominant conservative male faction, led by Allén and literary scholar Horace Engdahl (also a former permanent secretary), which voted against the measure on the grounds that it would be unfair to punish Frostenson for the perceived crimes of her husband. Three members: novelist Klas Ostergren, literary scholar Kjell Espmark and historian Peter Englund duly resigned and Danius stood down as permanent secretary and withdrew from active participation, as did Frostenson.
The affair would not have attracted so much international interest but for the Swedish Academy’s role in selecting the recipients of the Nobel Prize. And now, thanks to all the resignations, the existence of the Academy itself has been put in jeopardy. All eyes are now on the king and his possible reforms to reach some kind of solution that can secure the future of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
English author Kazuo Ishiguro has won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. For some weeks now, the bookies have been offering odds on the likely winner. Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was front runner earlier this week, followed closely by Japan’s Haruki Murakami. Ishiguro was some way down the list of favourites: a surprise win, no doubt, for the bookies, and one that is likely to generate plenty of discussions and debate.
The commentary about this year’s prize, though, is unlikely to run as hot as it did last year, following the bombshell announcement that Bob Dylan was the new Laureate. With Ishiguro, love him or not, we are unquestionably in the company of a noteworthy writer, one who has been widely honoured. He has been winning literary awards since 1982, when A Pale View of the Hills won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.
Despite this record of success – or perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the current media climate — Ishiguro seems to have been caught unawares by the win. Not unlike Helen Garner’s first response to the email telling her she’d won the Windham-Campbell prize, he thought the announcement of the award was fake news.
This year’s award was based on Ishiguro’s contribution as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary to the Nobel Academy, added that he is “a writer of great integrity”, one who tackles those complex and enduring themes of “memory, time, and self-delusion”.
Personally, I’m delighted with the win. Ishiguro’s novels have helped give shape and texture to my life. An Artist of the Floating World (1986; winner of the Costa Book Award) and Remains of the Day (1989; Booker Prize winner) accompanied me through long insomniac nights. The uncertainty, barely-declared unhappiness and sense of dislocation found in both narrators fitted perfectly with my experience of being a stranger in a strange land. When We Were Orphans (2000), with its awkward misfit narrator and its haunting/haunted location, might be considered his least successful book, but I found all that unresolved guilt and unconfirmed identity both compelling and disturbing.
Never Let Me Go was named as Time Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2005. Its exquisite voice, and exquisitely painful dystopia, seemed to fit perfectly the mood of anxiety threading through that decade, one characterised by both late capitalism and the rapidly changing environment associated with the Anthropocene. And, most recently, The Buried Giant (2015) catapulted readers back to post-Arthurian Britain, weaving narrative threads from across history and treating enduring love and failing memory with equal compassion.
Ishiguro is often described as an author who writes across and between genres, moving from speculative fiction, to crime fiction, to social realism and fantasy. However I don’t find it instructive to pigeonhole his books into generic categories.
If anything, his writing demonstrates the permeability of the rules of genre. His technical and literary capacity, along with his closely observed — and coldly if tenderly rendered portraits – locate his writing outside formulae or conventions. The worlds he creates, and the characters that people them, are startlingly authentic – an empty term that I don’t like to use, but which feels right in this context.
Alfred Nobel established the prize, in his will, as one that is designed to reward “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. “Ideal” is another of those empty terms, but it seems to me that a writer who has consistently tackled problems of ethical relationships, social responsibility, questions of memory, gaps in meaning and identity, and done it all with a light touch and deep empathy fits that bill.
Ishiguro’s characters are often hard to love, but easy to care for, and their struggles with “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world” offer ways of seeing and thinking about what lies beneath our own feet.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro. The link below is to an article reporting on the announcement.
Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the bookies’ favourite for the second year to win the Nobel prize in literature. But singer songwriter Bob Dylan won it for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But, as Kenyan academic Peter Kimani tells The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina, this doesn’t take the sheen off one of Africa’s greatest living writers.
Who is Ngugi wa Thiong’o?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is regarded as one of Africa’s greatest living writers. He grew up in what became known as Kenya’s White Highlands at the height of British colonialism. Unsurprisingly, his writing examines the legacy of colonialism and the intricate relationships between locals seeking economic and cultural emancipation and the local elites serving as agents of neo-colonisers.
The great expectations for the new country, as captured in Ngugi’s seminal play, The Black Hermit, anticipated the disillusionment that followed. His fiction, from the foundational trilogy of Weep Not, Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, amplify those expectations, before the optimism gives way in Petals of Blood, and is replaced by disillusionment.
What sets Ngugi above and apart from the hundreds of other African writers?
African fiction is fairly young. Ngugi stands in the continent’s pantheon of writers who started writing when Africa’s decolonisation gained momentum. In a certain sense, the writers were involved in constructing new narratives that would define their people. But Ngugi’s recognition goes beyond his pioneering role: his writing resonates with many across Kenya and Africa.
One could also recognise Ngugi’s consistency at churning out high-quality stories about Africa’s contemporary society. This he has done in a manner that illustrates his commitment to equality and social justice.
He has done much more in scholarship. His treatise, Decolonising the Mind, now a foundational text in post-colonial studies, illustrates his versatility. His ability to spin the yarns while commenting on the politics that goes into literary production of marginal literature is a very rare combination.
Finally, one could talk about Ngugi’s cultural and political activism. This precipitated his yearlong detention without trial in 1977. He attributes his detention to his rejection of English and embracing his Gikuyu language as his vehicle of expression.
Which work or works best illustrate his thinking?
It’s hard to pick a favourite from Ngugi’s over two dozen texts. But there is concurrence among critics that A Grain of Wheat, which was voted among Africa’s best 100 novels at the turn of the last century, stands out for its stylistic experimentation and complexity of characters.
Others consider the novel as the last signpost before Ngugi’s work became overly political. For other critics, it’s Wizard of the Crow – which came out in 2004, after nearly two decades of waiting – that encapsulates Ngugi’s creative finesse. It utilises many literary tropes, including magical realism, and addresses the politics of African development and the shenanigans by the political elite to maintain the status quo.
What are Ngugi’s lasting contributions to African literature?
Without a doubt, Africa would be poorer without the efforts of Ngugi and other pioneering writers to tell the African story. He is also an important figure in post-colonial studies. His constant questioning of the privileging of the English language and culture in Kenya’s national discourse saw him lead a movement that led to the scrapping of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and replaced by the Department of Literature that placed African literature and its diasporas at the centre of scholarship.
Ngugi is still active in writing and his latest offering is the third instalment of his memoir, Birth of a Dreamweaver that looks back on his years at Makerere University in Uganda. This is the period when he published his novels, Weep Not, Child and The River Between, while still an undergraduate. Also at this time he wrote the play, The Black Hermit, which was performed as part of Uganda’s independence celebrations in 1962.
His work has been translated into more than 30 world languages.
Ngugi has appeared on the list of favourites to win the Literature Nobel for a number of years. This was yet another year.
Yes indeed, Ngugi has been among the bookies’ favourite for the past couple of years. But since the workings of the Nobel award committee remain secret —- the list of the committee’s deliberations are kept secret for 50 years —- its choice for this year, the American singer Bob Dylan raises interesting questions about the Nobel committee’s interpretation of artistic production as writing.
As one unimpressed pundit commented on Twitter,
“the idea that Dylan is a greater writer (rather than song versifier) than Philip Roth is, frankly, absurd.”
But author Salman Rushdie, who bookies listed among this year’s possible winners, commented:
“From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”
In 1920, Rudyard Kipling (Nobel Prize in Literature 1907), published The Conundrum of the Workshops. This poem about review culture features the Devil as “first, most dread” critic who responds to human creative outputs with: “it’s pretty, but is it art?”, a review that hurls the makers into confusion, rivalry and anguish. What could be worse, for an artist, than to discover that what you were making is not art after all?
Social media has taken over the Devil’s role as “most dread” reviewer, and all night the twitterverse has been alive with commentators expressing their outrage at, or rejoicing over, the decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the Literature prize to musician and songwriter Bob Dylan. As journalist and writer Jason Diamond tweeted: “My timeline is like watching a ‘Dylan deserved the Nobel’ vs ‘Dylan didn’t deserve the Nobel’ ping pong match.”
Much of this ping-pong commentary operates less according to the rules of evidence and argument than according to the rules of quarrel; of personal taste; of anger directed at established privilege; and of teasing Boomer nostalgia.
On the Affirmative team we have not-a-poet Salman Rushdie tweeting that “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.
And there’s actual poet Billy Collins, who affirms the prize because Dylan’s lyrics are “in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page”.
From the team for the Negative, there’s editor Chloe Angyal: “Literally zero women were awarded Nobels this year. Maybe someone can write a poignant, gravelly, somewhat atonal folk song about that”.
Or the writer Shay Stewart Bouley who tweeted about “peak white man music.” Or music journalist Everett True, who pokes fun at the committee: “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature is like your third-rate English teacher at school, trying to look ‘cool’.”
Not all commentators have relied on personal taste or social politics: several observe something that struck me too: there seems to have been a category error in the awarding of this prize.
Novelist Jodi Picoult tweets: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” From novelist Joanne Harris: “Is this the first time that a back catalogue of song lyrics has been judged eligible for a literary prize?” More bluntly, from novelist Jeff VanderMeer:
Is it possible that this award was determined according to the sort of logic set out by The Logician in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros: The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded only to those who have created literature. Bob Dylan was awarded the Prize. Therefore Dylan is a creator of literature?
Perhaps. I am very interested in the relationship between song lyrics and poetry, and it is a close relationship – the first poems were almost certainly sung – but centuries ago, the two creative modes parted company. They operate now according to a different logic, depend on different traditions, and are located within very different ecosystems. This is not a question of relative quality; it is a question of categories.
So, whether I admire Dylan’s body of work or not, whether I am a fan or not, I think the Nobel Prize Committee has made a category mistake. They awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
And I don’t argue with this at all. But does that mean his output is “work in the field of literature”? Not for my money. Dylan is a musician; he has been well recognised for his contributions to music, and more broadly to cultural life.
When Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg gushes that “He is probably the greatest living poet”, I can only say that Mr Wastberg should not be let anywhere near a literature prize.
And – taking my own place on the team for the Negative – if it must go to a songwriter, why Dylan? Did he need the money more than, say, Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin? Has he not had enough public attention? And were there really no writers – no poets, novelists, essayists, no people who have spent their lives in the field of literature – considered Nobel-worthy?
It’s very good to see that literature can still spark passion and outpourings of personal commentary; but I can’t help but read this decision as one that was discourteous to members of the field of literature, dismissive of women’s achievements, and fundamentally kinda nostalgic. Let me leave the last (tongue-in-cheek) word to writer Leah Kaminsky: “No woman wins any Nobel prize this year. Oh the times they ain’t a changin’.”
To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.
As the news broke, I was in the middle of teaching James Joyce to some undergraduates – an author who did not win the Nobel, but is often considered a pinnacle of high literature. Many wouldn’t look to compare these two artists, not least those already protesting that Dylan’s win cheapens the award. But in many ways, they’re alike. I’m thrilled. Dylan’s win has been a slow train coming.
Meanwhile, Dylan will have been gearing up for another gig – much as he has been doing for more than half a century. On his Nobel-winning night he’s set to play Las Vegas, so it’s good to hear that he’s won a prize based on the reasonable judgement of a committee of high-minded enlightened experts and not just on the throw of the dice.
In terms of stamina alone, he’s a worthy winner but – more than that – it is the quality and the generosity of the achievement that is a pleasure to recognise. It’s great for his millions of fans around the world, old and young, great for the prize and great for the idea that popular music and serious literature aren’t necessarily so different after all.
The world of Dylan’s most distinctive lyrics is probably more Las Vegas than it is Stockholm – his songs are more often populated with gamblers than writers and academics. But his stature as the poet of rock and roll has never really been much in doubt. The significant presence of literary culture in what Variety magazine once mocked as the “deliberately iggerunt” vernacular language of his songs has increasingly been revealed.
The seriousness of the literary as well as musical achievement has gradually gained more and more respect and leading academic critics, such as Christopher Ricks, have been keen to recognise and to try to account for it. His autobiographical Chronicles are packed with references to and anecdotes about writers.
References and anecdotes are also something that filled Joyce’s pages. Curiously, Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records at the time Dylan was beginning his recording career, gave him a first-edition copy of Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses. Dylan professed that “he couldn’t make hide nor hair of it”. He wanted the poet Archibald MacLeish to explain it to him but didn’t get around to asking in the end.
Readers of Joyce as well as Dylan might recognise that as just the kind of thing that happens to Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom. Ulysses is full of snatches of songs and music – and if it had been written a few years later Bob Dylan would have been in there for sure.
What a lucky man to own a first edition of such a famous text – now one of the most prized and valuable of all collectable rare and vintage books (one sold in 2009 for £275,000) as well as one that is most valued by serious literary critics and readers all over the world. Not a bad insurance policy just in case the recording career didn’t take off.
But of course it did take off – and how. It’s hard to imagine a more prominent living figure in American culture – perhaps even world culture – than Bob Dylan, or one whose work combines a more richly poetic and surreal artistry in its vision of the contemporary world, a more iconoclastic sense of social justice, more notes of personal intimacy or such a dry and acute sense of humour. There is nobody better capable of provoking his huge and amazingly loyal audience with new challenges, at the same time as endearing himself to them all the more.
I hope the buskers and street singers in the subways and on the street corners around the world dust off their favourite Dylan standards and sing them out loud. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone with or without a guitar or harmonica who hasn’t tried to strum some Dylan chords or mimic that unmistakeable voice at some point in their lives – just to try to answer that great Dylan anthem question: “How does it feel?”
How does it feel for Dylan to win the Nobel? Let’s hope he tells us in the acceptance speech – or in song.