The most prestigious literary price, the Noble prize, will be postponed to 2019. In 2019, two laureates will be awarded. Odile Heynders argues that the next celebration will be a special one and therefore should honor two female authors who succeed in giving literature a new dimension and relevance.
The Nobel Prize in Literature
This December there will be no awarding of the Nobel prize in literature. In the spring of this year the Swedish Academy announced that after a sex assault scandal, financial malpractice, repeated leaks and a series of resignations, it needed time to recapture public confidence.
In 1895 the Swedish inventor (of dynamite), entrepreneur, and scientist Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) decided in his last will to leave his fortune to the establishment of the Nobel prize. The prize would be divided in five parts honoring men and women for outstanding achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, and literature. In regard to the latter, Alfred Nobel stated that the prize had to be distributed to “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”.
The Nobel prize in literature first was awarded in 1901, to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. Since then, 110 prizes have been presented over the years with the exception of 1914 and 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943. There have been 4 shared prizes, so in total there have been 114 laureates, of which only 14 were women. Selma Lagerlöf in 1909 was the first woman to be given the Nobel prize in literature, Svetlana Alexievich in 2015 was the last. The prize money is about 1 million euro.
Scandals in the Swedish Academy
The Nobel prize in literature is awarded by the distinguished Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustav III. The eighteen members of the Academy are appointed for life and not permitted to resign.
In November 2017, however, the prestige of the Academy was heavily damaged when the newspaper Dagens Nyheter published accusations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct by photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, a leading cultural figure in Sweden and the husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson.
There were some serious allegations against Arnault. Eighteen women accused him of physical abuse, sometimes perpetrated in apartments owned by the Academy. Arnault and Frostenson had ran a culture club that was partly paid for with funds provided by the Academy, and Arnault is alleged to have leaked the names of at least seven Nobel laureates in advance of their announcement.
The man, unsurprisingly, denied the accusations, and his wife did not make any effort to step down. Subsequently, the Academy was unable to handle the protests. The Academy’s reputation as a traditional, inflexible and patriarchal institute became dominant in the public sphere.
Some members announced that they wanted to resign – but according to the Academy Statutes they were not allowed to do so. Some people criticized Frostenson, while others supported her, because of the fact that it was her husband and not she who was accused of sexual harassment. As a result of all this disgraceful turmoil, King Carl XVI Gustaf announced a change in the Academy Statutes to ensure its survival. The decision was taken to postpone the 2018 award.
Alternative Prize in Literature
In the late spring of 2018 a group of more than a hundred Swedish public intellectuals established ‘the New Academy’, a non-profit, politically and financially independent organization in charge of an alternative prize for literature to be awarded in December 2018. Concerned about what had happened the New Academy stated on its website that “literature should be associated with democracy, openness, empathy and respect. In a time when human values are increasingly being called into question, literature becomes the counterforce of oppression and a code of silence”.
The New Academy invited Sweden’s librarians to submit nominations before the 8th of July. 47 authors were selected, and quite some fresh faces were chosen as Alison Flood on The Guardian noticed: the fiction of Finnish rising star Sofi Oksanen, the fierce originality of Polish Olga Tokarczuk, and the sizzling fantasy of Nnedi Okorafor. Celebrity writers Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie were on the list as well.
Condé is a winner that could have been chosen by the Swedish Academy itself: she is the grand old lady of Caribbean literature, she has prestige, her novels can be considered “work in an idealistic direction” as Alfred Nobel claimed.
In the summer a worldwide public vote was launched on the basis of which 4 authors were elected for the final assessment. The New Academy enforced a gender quota on the shortlist, which eventually showed the names of Japanese literary superstar Haruki Murakami, Canadian/Vietnamese writer Kim Thúy, Caribbean author Maryse Condé, and British fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman.
Murakami asked for his shortlist nomination to be withdrawn; he preferred to concentrate on his writing. (Murakami, obviously, is a frontrunner for the official Nobel prize.) The final assessment of the New Academy prize was done by an expert jury chaired by Ann Pålsson, editor and independent publisher, and with the members: Lisbeth Larsson, professor of Literature at Gothenburg University, Peter Stenson, editor and independent publisher, and Gunilla Sandin, head of library.
On October the 12th it was announced that Maryse Condé is the laureate and will receive the New Academy prize on 9 December. After that date, the New Academy will be dissolved.
The New Academy’s activities can be considered a successful democratic initiative and an inclusive and open alternative to the secrecy and obscurity of the Swedish Academy. The prize is funded by sponsors and crowd funding and will be about one hundred thousand euros.
In reaction to its openness, the New Academy prize also received conservative criticism in Sweden: “The only thing really worse than the old Academy is the new one, consisting of 117 Instagram celebrities with more or less vague connections to the cultural world".
Maryse Condé, born in Guadeloupe in 1937, is without any doubt a respectful winner of the alternative Nobel literature prize. Her work evokes magic, hope and fear in postcolonial places and communities. Condé intermingles fiction and reality, imagination and representation.
On the New Academy’s website, she comments on her authorship and drive: “I am writing for myself. I write about slavery, Africa, the condition of black people throughout the world because I want to order my thoughts, to understand the world, and to be at peace with myself. I write to try to find answers to the questions I ask myself. Writing for me is a type of therapy, a way to be safe and sound”.
It would be a gesture of innovation and change if the Swedish Academy accepted Maryse Condé as a winner and awarded her with the official Nobel Prize in literature 2018 as well. This would prove that a more open democratic procedure for the election of winners is engaging and stimulating for readers all over the world.
In addition, Condé is a winner that could have been chosen by the Swedish Academy itself: she is the grand old lady of Caribbean literature, she has prestige, and her novels can be considered “work in an idealistic direction” as Alfred Nobel claimed.
But, if the Nobel prize in literature will have two editions in the coming year, and if the Academy considers the postponed prize as a new start, it would be fantastic to put another women next to Condé and thereby demonstrate how female literary voices are powerful, diverse, creative and poetic.
I suggest to give the Nobel Prize in literature 2019 to South African poet and writer Antjie Krog (1952), and to let both women appear on the stage in Stockholm next year and celebrate the value of literature and reading.
Why Antjie Krog? Because of her poetry in Afrikaans, because of her impressive writing on changing South Africa in Country of my Skull (1998), A Change of Tongue (2003), and Begging to be Black (2009).
Krog is a journalist, public intellectual, poet, teacher, all at the same time. She uses various voices in a dialogue with others, about other opinions, experiences and political ideas. In her reportage on the Truth and Reconcilliation Committee in Country of my Skull (1998), she observes, repeats the shocking narratives of others, and sometimes uses her poetic, individual style to make experiences relivable.
Krog’s engagement with post-apartheid South Africa is based on the ideas of interconnectedness and of belonging. On the idea that there is a place (plek) for everyone, to come back to, to sit down in, without having a right to it, without owning it. Krog in Begging to be Black (2009) even thinks about becoming black: “I want to be part of the country I was born in. I need to know whether it is possible for somebody like me to become like the majority, to become ‘blacker?’ and live as a full and at-ease component of the South African psyche.” (2009, p. 93). The becoming in writing is an idea that was reflected upon by Gilles Deleuze in 'Literature and Life'. Writing is a question of becoming, he stated, "always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed" (1997, p. 225).
The imagination of the writer of literature is powerful, but also a power that has to be slowed down, as Krog realizes: “to imagine black at this stage is to insult black. That is why I stay with non-fiction, listening, engaging, observing, translating, until one can begin to sense a thinning of skin, negotiate possible small openings at places where imaginings can begin to begin.” (2009, p. 268)
With her work of literary non-fiction, Krog opens a new way for literature as a reportage on incompleteness and differences, becoming and voicing. This literature is about beauty and politics, value and critical thinking at the same time, and as such goes beyond any livable or lived experience (Deleuze 1997).
Two female writers and the Nobel Prize in Literature
Let’s imagine this: the Nobel prize in literature 2018 and 2019 awarded in the Swedish capital next year. A new Swedish Academy team, new procedures for election and voting. And two female writers on the stage, whose literary work just does what literature is supposed to do: to open perspectives on people. On their thoughts, ideals, fears and fantasies. Writing as becoming.
Deleuze, G. (1997) Literature and Life, Translation Daniel W. Smit and Michael A. Greco, Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2 (winter), pp. 225-230.
Krog, A. (1998) Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa.Cape Town: Random House.
Krog, A. (2003) A Change of Tongue. Cape Town: Random House.
Krog, A. (2009) Begging to Be Black. Cape Town: Random House.