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The Nobel Prize in Literature: Where Do We Go From Here?

Erika Harlitz-Kern

Staff Writer

Erika Harlitz-Kern holds a doctorate from a Swedish university and can't get enough of history, books, and music. Her earliest memories involve a comic book and a Dutch troubadour. She has travelled South Asia on a shoestring, although nowadays she spends most of her vacations in the Mississippi Delta. Lives with her husband in South Florida, because sooner or later they would've ended up there anyway. Blog: The Boomerang Twitter: EH_Kern

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2018 has been cancelled. Instead, two prizes will be awarded next year, while the Swedish Academy, who appoints the annual recipient of the prize, reconstitutes itself in an effort to survive the fallout of the scandal it has been embroiled in over the past several months.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is arguably the most prestigious literary award in the world. The decision to postpone the 2018 award has given rise to more questions than it has answered. Is the prize in jeopardy? Will the Nobel Foundation allow the Swedish Academy to continue awarding the prize? Is the Nobel Prize in Literature at all needed?

Let’s start with the last question first; no, the Nobel Prize in Literature is not needed. Just like no other literary award is needed. As Adam Kirsch states in his opinion piece in The Atlantic, what constitutes as good reading or classic literature can’t be decided by committee. We can all agree on that.

WHO is in the service of whom?

The second question requires more in-depth discussion. The Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since the prize’s inception in 1899 and the first award ceremony in 1901. Over the 117 years that have passed since French author Sully Prudhomme became the first author to receive the prize, the prize has grown in renown and prestige, and the Swedish Academy has basked itself in the glory. To the point where the Academy seems to have forgotten who is in the service of whom.

The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III of Sweden in the service of Swedish literature and the Swedish language. Somewhere along the way, the perspectives became twisted, and certain members of the Swedish Academy seems to have come to believe that instead of them working in the service of literature, literature exists to service them, in particular the Nobel Prize in Literature. With this view of themselves came the idea of being untouchable.

In November last year, a newspaper article in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter brought forward eighteen women who accused a man named Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual assault. Arnault is the husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson and a close personal friend of several other Academy members. Even though no Academy member has been accused of sexual assault, the response to these allegations by Arnault’s Academy friends is what has brought the Academy to the brink of collapse.

Because even though Arnault’s behavior has been known in the whisper network of Sweden’s art circles for a long time (and was even reported on and brought to the attention of the Academy in 1997), and even though the connections between Arnault and the Swedish Academy have resulted in a criminal investigation, Arnault’s friends have continuously dismissed and belittled the accusations levied against him. They have done so to such a degree that Classicist Ida Östenberg has written a column in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, pointing out the fact that the victims in this mess are, in fact, the women assaulted by Arnault, and not individual members of the Academy.


Whether or not the Swedish Academy will continue to award the Nobel Prize in Literature depends on how the Academy decides to reform itself, and, indeed, if it is at all possible for the Academy to clear up its own mess without external counseling.

Lisa Irenius, Editor-in-Chief of Arts and Entertainment at Svenska Dagbladet, has laid out a five-point program for the Swedish Academy, consisting of Respite, Reconstruction, Reform, Renaissance, and Risk. In other words, the Swedish Academy have granted themselves respite in postponing the award, which, in turn, has provided them with the opportunity for internal reconstruction and reform, which, if done correctly, will lead to a renaissance for the Academy. However, Irenius says, these actions are taken at great risk, because it could very well mean that the Swedish Academy will not be able to reform itself to the extent that is needed and, consequently, the Academy will never recover.

Irenius proposes that as part of the reconstruction and reforms of the Academy, all currently remaining members resign so that when the 2019 Nobel Prize ceremony takes place, the Swedish Academy is populated by an entirely new group of people. I agree with Irenius. Among the few members who are still with the Academy, all of Arnault’s defenders remain.


As for the international reputation of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy has much work to do to remove the tarnish it has caused the prize. Even though Kirsch’s piece for The Atlantic in large parts reads as a kicking of someone who is already down, his main point is valid: The Nobel Prize in Literature is not needed, not by readers and not by the world. One of the reasons it is so easily dismissed is because the Swedish Academy, in its choices of recipients, has rendered the prize obsolete.

For the Nobel Prize in Literature to recover its good reputation and become relevant again, the international scope of the prize needs to be expanded upon. The prize needs to become global. The prize needs to become diverse. There are amazing works of literature written all over the world, not only in Europe, not only by men, not only by white people. But for the prize to go global, the Swedish Academy needs to move away from its current view of what constitutes as good literature, and for that to happen, everybody must go.

Further reading on Book Riot:

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2018 Cancelled in the Wake of #MeToo.

The Swedish Academy Collapses. Two Additional Members Have Resigned.

The Disintegration of the Swedish Academy. Is This the End for the Nobel Prize in Literature?