Nobel literature row: usually it takes a world war to disrupt the prize


Thomas Kaiserfeld, Lund University

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According to the academy, the reason for the decision is more specifically the number of members who have withdrawn from participating in its work.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.

Turbulent history

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.

First winner: 1901 Nobel laureate, Sully Prudhomme.
Nobel Prize Committee

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.

1945 Nobel laureate, the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.
Nobel Prize Committee

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.

Uncertain future

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.




Read more:
Nobel Prize crisis: flurry of withdrawals rocking Swedish Academy’s showpiece literature award


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 ConversationThe 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.

Thomas Kaiserfeld, Professor at Division of History of Ideas and Sciences, Lund University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Nobel Prize crisis: flurry of withdrawals rocking Swedish Academy’s showpiece literature award


Thomas Kaiserfeld, Lund University

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.

Scandal erupts

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.

Turmoil

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 ConversationThe 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.

Thomas Kaiserfeld, Professor at Division of History of Ideas and Sciences, Lund University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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