For a long time, book lovers have been concerned about why the Nobel Prize Committee ignores some important writers when awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature. As if that weren’t enough, the prize has now been hit by a new controversy: the #MeToo campaign has come to haunt the Swedish Academy as well.
Recently, Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of poet and erstwhile Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused of sexual harassment by as many as 18 women.
As per reports, the acts of harassment have been taking place for the past two decades. It has also been alleged that every year Arnault, supported by his wife, leaked the names of the Nobel winners.
After the scandal came to light, as many as five of the Academy’s 18 members stepped down. As a result, it has been decided that there will be no Nobel Prize in Literature awarded this year because the Academy is left without a proper quorum.
But the Nobel Prize was already courting controversy because, for the past many years, there have been some choices of winners that were not received well in literary circles.
Imagine, while towering writers such as the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and Italian novelist Umberto Eco were still alive, the prize was being given to writers who were hardly known outside of their own countries.
Fuentes and Eco died in 2012 and 2016 respectively without winning the Nobel, and it is unlikely that French author Milan Kundera is going to get it in his lifetime either.
There have been quite a few instances when the prize was given to a relatively lesser-known writer. In 2011, it was awarded to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer when great Polish writers such as Tadeusz Róewicz and Adam Zagajewski were alive.
Many thought Patrick Modiano was lucky to get the Nobel in 2014 whereas the other great French writers, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, weren’t.
When Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel in 2015, it came as a big surprise because she was, and still is, known as an investigative journalist. If the field were open to investigative journalists, there were many who could lay claim to the award. Maybe those who reported on the Panama Leaks might be thinking about getting one.
But the biggest surprise came when the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was given to Bob Dylan, the famous American singer-songwriter. He himself was not enthusiastic about receiving it and didn’t turn up to receive the award, but eventually accepted it in a low-key ceremony.
All of this was happening while Haruki Murakami (Japan), Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth (the United States), Julian Barnes (the United Kingdom) and Margaret Atwood (Canada) were still writing books.
The process of choosing a single winner of the prize is so secretive that people do not even know which writers and poets are short-listed or nominated. The Nobel Committee discloses the names of the nominees 50 years after the award is given, so, as of now, we know only about nominees until the year 1967.
Here’s a brief look at how it worked:
o In 1962, a total of 62 writers were nominated. The American author John Steinbeck was awarded the prize. He had been a nominee since 1943. Still, he was fortunate enough to be given preference over the British poet and novelist Robert Graves and British novelist Lawrence Durrell. Durrell, the celebrated writer of The Alexandria Quartet, was the favourite for that year; he lived for another 28 years and died in 1990 without winning the coveted laurel.
o In 1963, the Greek poet Giorgos Seferis was the recipient of the award. English poet W.H. Auden and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda were also considered that year, but were overlooked by the Committee. Neruda won the award in 1971, but Auden – considered the greatest of English language poets after T.S. Eliot – is not a Nobel laureate.
o In 1964, the prize was given to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who influenced many a writer in the 20th century. But this time round it was Sartre who declined to accept the award.
o In 1965, the Nobel Committee was at sea. It came up with three pairs of writers and suggested that the award be divided between either the Russians Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Sholokhov, or the Latin Americans Miguel Asturias and Jorge Luis Borges, or Ukraine-born Shmuel Agnon and Swedish Nelly Sachs who represented the Jewish community. But the Committee’s chairman disagreed with the proposal and they finally went with Sholokhov.
o The next year, in 1966, the Committee remembered the pair of Agnon and Sachs and awarded the prize to both of them. The formidable Englishman Graham Greene and Irishman Samuel Beckett, along with Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata and Auden were also considered, but the decision was made in favour of Agnon and Sachs, who are now seen as distant stars in the horizon of famous writers.
o The deliberations that took place in 1965 were still influential in 1967 when Asturias was decorated. So four of the six writers short-listed in 1965 were given the Nobel in 1965, 1966 and 1967 respectively. Akhmatova and Borges never got it.
In this context it would be interesting to mention that, every year, people used to gather around Borges’s home in Buenos Aires in anticipation of him being given the award… to no avail. Borges was quoted to have said, “It’s an old Scandinavian tradition: they nominate me for the prize and give it to someone else, and that’s a kind of a ritual.”
In the last few years, some of the writers who were awarded the Nobel were not even in the (literary) limelight and were not considered serious contenders at all. Then why were they given the award? Coming back to the recent controversy might provide us with an answer to that question.
Ladbrokes, as some of us might know, is a UK-based betting and gambling company. People can place bets on its website on who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In a report in 2016, The Guardian wrote, “Ninety-one percent of the time the winner has had odds of 10/1 or less when betting was suspended. The eventual winner has also seen their odds decrease by an average of 32 percent in the final week before the prize is announced.”
This means that the winner is often the one who is considered ‘not’ likely to get the award, so his/her odds are greater. What if there is ‘inside information’ about the sure-fire winner? The one who has information will bet on the contender who is – otherwise – unlikely to get the award and will ultimately be getting more money.
The Swedish authorities must investigate this serious issue. It might help the Academy if the Nobel Committee comprised the previous 15 to 20 Nobel laureates. They should take a decision on the award independently and send their recommendations to the Committee chairman.
This way the award can retain its prestige, which has dwindled in recent years. Otherwise, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which has already excluded the likes of Leo Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Borges and Kundera, will remain controversial.
The writer is a poet, novelist and translator. Dawn/ ANN