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Book lovers fill gap left by tainted prize, but will Nobel be back in 2019?

Why We Wrote This

The Nobel literature award was waylaid by scandal, rocking a source of Swedish pride. As a flawed but still-prestigious institution flounders, what will it take to restore credibility? 

Fernando Vergara/AP/File
A Nobel Prize in Literature will not be awarded at least until 2019. ‘If the reorganized Nobel committee ... manages to pick a pair of laureates with strong qualities for next year it is possible that the academy can restore the authority of the prize,’ says literary critic Jukka Petäjä.

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This weekend, Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé will collect the New Academy Prize, the so-called alternative Nobel. It was created by an ad hoc group of Swedish writers and artists as a replacement for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was canceled amid a sexual harassment scandal at the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel winners. But for all the good feelings the New Academy Prize has engendered, the fact is it was only intended as a one-off replacement award. The Swedish Academy intended to return next year, reorganized and ready to choose two literature winners, one for 2018 and another for 2019. However the reclusive academy itself remains fractured over the scandal and other issues, making that scenario problematic. “The future of the Nobel Prize is a huge question mark, with the Nobel Foundation [the organization which actually funds the prize] undecided – or at least not officially decided – about whether there will be a prize in 2019,” says Madelaine Levy, literary editor for Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.

This weekend, Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Conde arrives in Stockholm to collect the New Academy Prize, the so-called alternative Nobel conjured up by an ad hoc group of Swedish writers and artists as a replacement for the Nobel Prize in Literature. That prize, which is awarded by the Swedish Academy, was canceled this year following a scandal triggered by allegations of sexual harassment by Claude Arnault, husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson.

The organizers of the impromptu New Academy, founded by journalist and author Alexandra Pascalidou, hope that their “people’s choice” prize and the transparent manner by which the winner was ultimately chosen, will help stanch the wound to Sweden’s reputation that the scandal caused. No doubt there will be toasts all around this Sunday as Ms. Pascalidou and her colleagues celebrate their do-it-yourself award.

The toasts are deserved, says Madelaine Levy, literary editor for leading Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet. “In a year when the Nobel Prize is sadly missed,” Pascalidou and her colleagues “have put literary fiction of the highest rank in the spotlight – which is a feat in itself and one that they should be proud of,” Ms. Levy says.

She and other Swedish critics also approve of the choice of Ms. Conde. “A most worthy winner,” Levy says of the French-Caribbean writer, who has published more than 20 novels. “If the prize invites Swedish audiences – as well as others – to discover her work, I will be more than pleased.”

But what of the future of the Nobel itself? For all the good feelings and deserved attention to Conde’s work the New Academy Prize has engendered, the fact is it was only intended as a one-off replacement award for the “original” Nobel. The Swedish Academy announced that next year it hopes that its reorganized ten-member Nobel committee, including five members from outside the academy, will choose two winners, one for 2018 and another for 2019.

However, the reclusive academy itself remains fractured over the Arnault affair and other issues, making that scenario problematic. “Conflict is still ripe within the academy,” says Levy. “There is now only one woman working actively within the academy. The status of several members is unclear, as is Katarina Frostenson’s, whose presence is no longer wanted by a majority of the remaining members.” The fact that Ms. Frostenson’s husband, Mr. Arnault, in October was sentenced for rape to two years in prison, didn’t help matters.

As a result, according to Levy, “the future of the Nobel Prize is a huge question mark, with the Nobel Foundation [the organization which actually funds the prize] undecided – or at least not officially decided – about whether there will be a prize in 2019.”

Meanwhile Swedes and other disheartened admirers of the Swedish model are appalled at what the scandal and ongoing infighting within the academy have done to Sweden itself. “The huge crisis inside the Swedish Academy has certainly damaged the academy and Swedish society,” says Jukka Petäjä, literary critic of Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, “not to mention Sweden’s reputation as a model of transparency, justness, and sexual equality.”

These are the very same ideals that the organizers of the New Academy Prize seek to reinvigorate with their unorthodox laurel. The first round of nominees was chosen by a group of Swedish librarians before being narrowed to four finalists by an international poll in which more than 30,000 bibliophiles participated.

“We wanted to show the world that we are people who were willing to stand up and challenge the conservative traditions of the old academy and create an award which reflected the progressive, transparent, gender-equal Sweden we are proud of,” says Pascalidou.

But what happens if the Nobel is canceled again? As much as they enjoyed the process of creating the New Academy Prize, Pascalidou’s fellow prize-workers doubt that they could once again donate hundreds of hours of their time. “It was fantastic to be part of it,” says Sara Larsson, a novelist who handles press for the New Academy. “But most of us would not be able to do this again.”

Janerik Henriksson/TT News Agency/AP
Maryse Conde, an author from Guadeloupe, appears via videolink at Stockholm City Library in October after she was awarded the New Academy Prize. A group of Swedish librarians and an international poll of 30,000 bibliophiles helped select the winner. Ms. Conde is to receive the award on Dec. 9.

The institution’s lowest ebb

This is not the first time that the academy has known scandal, Levy points out, recalling the expulsion in 1794 of founding member Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, who was sentenced to death. “That was pretty spectacular for those involved too,” she says.

The academy, along with the prestige of the Nobel, has also suffered from several recent controversies, including the very public row that broke out in 1989 when it refused to discuss a motion in support of Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued against the writer. In response, two members dissociated themselves from the royal institution. (Academy members, who are appointed by the king, can not officially resign.)

Nor has the academy’s choices of laureates always been well received, particularly in the English-speaking world, where writers of the caliber of Willa Cather, James Baldwin, and Philip Roth have been overlooked. “The academy has had a difficult reputation for decades, particularly in the US, for being too obscure, arbitrary, and unjust to Anglo-American literature,” says Mr. Petäjä. Also, the controversial decision to award the prize to Bob Dylan in 2016, as well as the singer’s boorish behavior after the announcement, “had a negative impact.”

Still, the current crisis is the institution’s lowest ebb, he says. Levy agrees. “This is definitely the worst scandal in our lifetime.”

Nevertheless Petäjä is cautiously optimistic. “If the reorganized Nobel committee within the academy manages to pick a pair of laureates with strong qualities for next year it is possible that the academy can restore the authority of the prize.”

“Whether or not it will be able to pick one, no less two, is a big ‘if,’ ” he adds. “We will know more in January after the new committee actually meets.”

“Internationally, I believe most people aren’t familiar with the [Arault] affair,” says Levy, “so a restored prize and two worthy winners who actually accept it despite the furor will probably restore its reputation to some extent.”

Sofi Oksanen, Finland’s best-selling novelist and who was nominated for The New Academy Prize, is also distressed about the prospect of another cancellation for practical reasons.

“Translated fiction is having a hard time everywhere at the moment, and in many countries the Nobel winner is the best selling book,” says Ms. Oksanen, whose novel “Purge” has been translated in more than 50 language territories. “Everywhere the lists of translated fiction are being cut. Translated fiction is a window onto the world and the less windows we have the smaller our perspective becomes.”

“So yes, the Nobel still matters,” Oksanen says.

In the meantime, the Finnish-Estonian writer says that she will wear her nomination for the Nobel’s replacement award, the New Academy Prize, “as a badge of honor.”

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