Two years ago, the husband of one of the academy’s members was accused of multiple counts of sexual assault and eventually convicted of rape. The ensuing scandal tore apart the committee, exposing a history of lax regulation, a deep well of bad judgment and a vein of misogyny. Some members resigned, others refused to participate. The Nobel Foundation, which funds the award, raised serious concerns about the committee’s governance. The future of the literature prize seemed imperiled.
The committee members decided to take a year off, postponing the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature to 2019. The extra time, it was said, would give members a chance to get their house back in order and regain the world’s trust. New members were appointed. Rules were set down. A fresh spirit of transparency was in the air.
And then came Thursday’s announcement of the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in literature. The big test: an opportunity to show that the committee members could, in fact, carry on Alfred Nobel’s vague instructions to select “the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.”
First, the 2018 prize was awarded to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk for what the judges praised as “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
But then the other shoe — or jackboot — dropped, and any celebration of Tokarczuk’s work was hijacked by a fresh controversy: The Swedish Academy awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature to Peter Handke. He’s a controversial Austrian writer known for his sympathy for the late Yugoslavia leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of genocide. Handke not only attended that butcher’s funeral, he delivered a eulogy.
As Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, Vlora Citaku, put it: “There is nothing nobel about this!”
This is no way to demonstrate good judgment or to regain trust. It’s just another tone-deaf stunt by a group of Swedish snobs who command a disproportionate and undeserved wedge of the world’s attention.
Let’s set aside the ridiculous presumption that each year the Nobel Prize in literature goes to “the” greatest writer in the world. Given the complications of translation, the influences of cultural bias and the limits of any small group’s knowledge, the distinction of “best” is impossible to make with any defensible certainty. The prize is always political, always a compromise, always a statement of values.
Which is what makes Handke’s selection this year, of all years, so maddening. It didn’t have to be this way.
Consider: Before this year, only 14 women had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Given the committee’s record of chauvinism and the need to rebuild its reputation after a shocking sex scandal, why not select a female writer for the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature? Yes, two women in one year! Imagine the discussion we’d be having right now if the beloved Canadian writer Margaret Atwood had won this week. We can argue about the literary quality of some of her novels (please skip “Hag-Seed”), but what a profound influence her best work has had on the conversation about the rights of women. What a powerful way for the committee to connect with millions of actual readers.
Or why not use this year’s prize as an opportunity to draw attention to parts of the world that have been long slighted by the committee? Anders Olsson, a member of the Swedish Academy, all but promised that expansive vision earlier this month when he said, “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature, and now we are looking all over the world. . . . We hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”
A broader scope would have spotted many remarkable writers besides the Austrian eulogizer of a genocidal tyrant.
How long must Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o wait for the Nobel’s approval? (The man is already 81 years old!) Or why not recognize the novelist Maryse Condé and give Guadeloupe its first Nobel laureate in literature? Yan Lianke’s novels are banned in China, but they effectively satirize the excesses of capitalism, too, so he’s an equal opportunity offender from a country of 1.4 billion people that has won the Nobel Prize in literature only twice.
Any one of these writers — or a dozen others — would have been celebrated around the world along with Tokarczuk. Whatever Alfred Nobel meant by “an idealistic direction,” it’s clear that the Swedish Academy is not moving toward it.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.