We Should Dissolve the Nobel Prize in Literature

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We Should Dissolve the Nobel Prize in Literature

We’re long overdue for an alternative to the Nobel Prize. And the New Academy is the answer.

The New Academy was formed after the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, had a #MeToo incident earlier this year. Very Serious Literature is rife with sexism and moral turpitude, so it’s no surprise that their Weinstein moment arrived. As the The Guardian reported:

The Swedish Academy is not awarding a Nobel prize for literature this year, but a group of Swedish cultural figures are coming together to bestow their own version of the world’s most prestigious literary award instead, as an act of protest at the scandal that has engulfed the academy. The 2018 Nobel prize for literature was cancelled in May, following allegations of sexual assault made against Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of Katarina Frostenson. Frostenson is an author and a member of the Swedish Academy, the prize’s secretive jury. Arnault was charged with rape in June,but denies all the allegations.

In response, the New Academy created a prize that promises transparency and changes to the entire award process—and they’ve delivered so far. Any Swedish librarian had the opportunity to nominate any author with at least two books under their wing (one of which was published in the last decade). After that came the radical part: a public vote. Imagine it! You can still vote here through the end of the day.

The three authors with the most votes and one author chosen by librarians will then be judged by a panel led by women. After the winner is announced on October 14th and presented with an award on December 10th, the New Academy will dissolve.

But why dissolve at all? Why not keep the New Academy around? Can’t we dissolve the other institution instead?

To quote the title of an article by Sana Goyal, “An alternative literary prize aims to be what the Nobel Prize hasn’t been—inclusive and democratic.” Those two words aren’t seeing a lot of light these days, even before the Swedish Academy was embroiled in a predictable scandal.

The Nobel is a problem. It has been for a while.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2017 win was Convention City. Bob Dylan’s 2016 win was bizarre. And, frankly, almost every winner before then was exactly what you’d expect from a clique of Euro-bros. Official names and safeties, all the way down.

Takedowns of the Nobel Prize are legion. The most recent knee-capping came courtesy of Sam Carter writing for Asymptote. Goyal, who calls the prize process “opaque” and “elite,” summarized Carter’s findings thus:

Carter then proceeded to share a series of unsurprising statistics that seriously undermine what we may understand this “ideal direction” to be. From 1901 to 2017, only 14 women have won the prize, and of the 113 laureates so far, 29 have written in English (further followed by 10 European languages). “If these numbers are supposed to be approximations or even representations of an ideal direction, we should ask ourselves if the compass is broken,” he wrote.

Alexandra Schwartz sank the same free-throw, calling the prize “broken”:

…behind the mystical Nobel curtain is a small, fairly homogeneous group of fallible Swedes who have taken it upon themselves to arbitrate all of world literature…What makes the prize relevant is our belief that it is. The academy’s scandal is a reminder that it owes its legitimacy to us readers.

Besides the people who are already in line for a Nobel Prize, is there anyone of reading age who takes the Nobel Prize in Literature seriously?

Oh sure, we mention it. But in your heart of hearts, do you really believe in the Nobel Prize? You believe in its power, sure. But do you honestly consider it a disinterested judgment of literary excellence? Every “important” award paints a picture of the world and how the world’s justice ought to run.

How long has it been since the Nobel Prize in Literature accurately mirrored modern human life?

There are other problems besides the Nobel’s shameful lack of personal diversity. The Nobel doesn’t really cover, or even pretend to cover, all the bases of literature. Novels of manners, yes. Satire and comedy and poetry and television writing and cinematic writing and comics writing, not so much.

Above all, the Nobel rewards the Academy. Not just the Swedish Academy; I mean the entire edifice of literary higher education, a machine that runs on status and prizes, taking excellent writers and beating them into conventional Franzens.

The Nobel, like the Booker Prize of the past, is an elite accolade in a world where the elites are already given so much.

We should ask ourselves this very simple question: What good do prizes do? Seriously. What do we talk about when we talk about the importance of the Nobel Prize?

Prizes are contests for churning out disappointment, not honoring excellence. The psychologist Amos Tversky used to say that for every winner, you had dozens of disappointed people. If a single trinket creates such widespread misery, then the prize-winners ought to have a good moral justification for awarding it.

And here the Nobel runs into problems. You can talk about the Nobel conferring status or highlighting deserving work, but when you cut away the other justifications, the prize exists to give the recipient a kind of immortality.

But it doesn’t—not really. With all respect to the deceased, who reads John Galsworthy (1932) anymore? Or Mikhail Sholokhov (1965)? Really, how many French people read Sully Prudhomme (1901)? If the prize had been around in the 19th century, they’d have given it to William Dean Howells a hundred thousand times before they thought of throwing it to Mark Twain.

From time to time, a literary moonshot works out. But the great names we associate with the Nobel Prize are writers who already made their mark years before the prize became relevant: Tagore, Yeats, Shaw, Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner. The Nobel didn’t give them status; they lent their status to the prize.

The prize borrows light from already-burning stars. The only reliable path to literary immortality is to court the admiration and respect of the only audience that matters: the mass of humankind. Those writers who have written widely and well for a long period of time are most assured of the poetic crown, whatever form it takes. That’s why the New Academy’s democratic development is so thrilling; at least somebody in Sweden is getting the memo.

I get it; it’s easy to scoff at popular readership. Its flaws are obvious. But in the history of literature, mass appreciation is still the best judge for long-term appeal. And popular appeal has the best track record.

Who first opened the doors to marginalized authors? The public. Marginalized people found their audience in the crowd long before the Academies deigned to notice. Can you imagine the twin towers of Oxbridge giving shelter to Jane Austen during her rise to prominence? We remember Austen because the public did; we love her because the public loved her. And, eventually, the literary constabulary caught on. But what are the chances the Nobel Prize Committee will give a luminary like Zadie Smith its highest honor? That’s the problem.

Why should our best writers pine for the Nobel? Given the Swedish Academy’s history of tossing out perfectly good mustard seeds on the rocks, why take the Nobel seriously at all? The Prize is awarded by calculating eminences in a closed room.

Why should authors bother with the Nobel when they have the New Academy, and a world, to win?