Under a darkening cloud of sexual-harassment allegations, the members of the Swedish Academy announced Friday that they will not award a Nobel Prize in literature this year. Instead, they promise to get their gropey house in order and then give Nobel Prizes to two writers next year.
Good idea. But why stop at just a year off?
Friday, Peter Englund, a member of the academy, told the New York Times: “I think this was a wise decision, considering both the inner turmoil of the Academy and the subsequent bloodletting of people and competence, and the general standing of the prize. Who would really care to accept this award under the current circumstances?”
Mr. Roth, put your hand down!
Taking a break might sound drastic, but it’s happened seven times before. Even sharing the literature prize isn’t unheard of, though it’s only happened four times. The last instance was in 1974 when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson won the prize, which had nothing to do with the fact that they were both members of the academy, so don’t even think that.
In a statement released Friday, the Nobel Foundation said this year’s administrative pause “will help safeguard the long-term reputation of the Nobel Prize.”
How do you say, “That horse has left the barn” in Swedish?
The sexual-abuse allegations swirling around Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson, remain fairly opaque to Americans, but the problem with the Nobel Prize in literature has been obvious for years.
The judges swing erratically from weird choices (Elfriede Jelinek) to weak ones (J.M.G. Le Clézio), often letting their lefty politics direct their decisions (Dario Fo). Looking back, you’d be forgiven for thinking the selections were decided by lottery: John Steinbeck and Pearl Buck but not James Joyce and Mark Twain? Really?
Provincialism comes into play, too, though it’s often dressed up with the costume jewelry of sophistication. In 2008, the then-permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, said, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
Take that, Thomas Pynchon.
After ignoring writers in the United States for more than two decades — goodbye, John Updike; hang on, Joyce Carol Oates — the academy finally found an American writer they liked, Bob Dylan, who gave the world such memorable lyrics as this:
Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky
Let’s pause here for a moment to let the profundity of that immortal stanza sink in.
Perhaps the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, to quote another promising poet who died too early to win a Nobel Prize. The burden of choosing the year’s greatest writer on planet Earth is simply untenable. In his will, dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel instructed the academy to pick “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” That’s a directive vague enough to blow any ship of judges into a reef of confusion.
Add to that the insurmountable challenge of choosing from works of literature in scores of different languages. Some of the judges must necessarily rely on translations that may or may not rise to the challenge of transmitting the greatness of the originals.
And the worthy modern goal of recognizing quality around the world leads inevitably to a kind of scorekeeping that has little to do with literature and much to do with politics. Why so many winners from France and so few from India?
Perhaps some literary works that speak to the deepest needs of one culture do not resonate in the same way with another — or with the world in general. After all, we humans don’t produce a Tolstoy every year (and he never won anyhow). So why not remove the annual obligation and, instead, award the Nobel Prize in literature only when a truly world-class author arises? Stop trying to fill out the international dance card of laureates. Stop using the award as a way to bring attention to this or that political struggle, noble as that may be.
Just wait, patiently, for greatness to be thrust upon us.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.