October 7, 2020
I DON’T KNOW what the American poet Louise Glück said when the Swedish Academy informed her that she won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, but I know what she should have said: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
October is the season of the Nobel Prizes, when a handful of people are catapulted into fame and fortune due to the philanthropic legacy of the inventor of dynamite. Four of the six prizes named after Alfred Nobel are generally uncontroversial — physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics — but the peace and literature prizes arouse passions. There is good reason to be dubious of the peace prize, which has gone to some great people and organizations but also went to Henry Kissinger and Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet it’s the literature prize that, in its current form, has definitely outlived its usefulness and caused great damage.
Last year, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer who created a set of impressive literary works in the first part of his career but since the 1990s fell into a morass of genocide denial. In recent decades, Handke wrote at least a half-dozen books and plays that downplayed and denied the genocide committed by Serbs against Muslims during Bosnia’s war. Handke even attended the funeral, and delivered an eulogy, for the former leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial for war crimes.
Literary awards have consequences in the real world. The Serb ultra-nationalists whom Handke defends are heroes to violent white extremists throughout Europe and in the United States. By giving a Nobel prize to Handke, the Swedish Academy, which selects the literature winner, essentially ratified a conspiracy theory embedded in his work: that Muslims represent a threat to Christians they live with. Handke’s genocide-denying books, rather than being relegated to the rubbish, were vested with the authority of the Nobel Prize.
The Swedish Academy is a strange organization. It has just 18 members who are appointed for life and who select new members by secret ballot — and the country’s king must approve them. The decision to give the 2019 prize to Handke is not the only evidence of the organization’s unfitness to manage the literature prize. The Academy had to postpone the 2018 award because of revelations that for decades it had abetted sexual harassment and rape by the husband of one of its members. Once that scandal broke open, thanks to the investigative work of journalist Matilda Gustavsson of Dagens Nyheter, the dismal response of the male-dominated Academy included forcing out a female member, Sara Danius, who was pushing for sweeping reforms in its ranks.
In a way, we can be thankful for these scandals because they are reminders of the need to implement a root-and-branch reform of the Nobel literature prize. For much of its existence, the prize generally served as a referendum on the best in Western literature. For that task, the 18 members of the Swedish Academy were a serviceable jury. But more than ever, the reach and aspiration of the Nobel literature prize is truly global. It is laughable and tragic that an award of such influence should be controlled by a tiny and secretive group of Swedes, let alone ones who have shown themselves to be abettors of sexual assault and genocide denial.
The Nobel Foundation, which oversees all the Nobel Prizes, would do the world a huge favor by firing the Swedish Academy. I don’t have a precise proposal for a replacement, but it would seem wise for a world literature prize to be decided by a diverse jury for whom non-European languages — such as Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and Urdu — are first or second languages. And it would be wise to not have these jurors appointed for life, because unassailable privilege is an inherent force of rot.
It was expected that the Swedish Academy would announce a “safe” choice today who would not invite criticism — that is to say, an individual who unlike Handke does not support genocide and is not European and is not male. Glück, a celebrated and uncontroversial poet who lives in Massachusetts, checks every box. The Academy, in this scenario, hopes it will have ridden out its scandals and shown that it can do the job. But let’s not be fooled. The Swedish Academy is fatally flawed. It will do wrong again because it cannot surmount its inherent limitations