Like every year, bookmakers publish odds on the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, which remain shrouded in mystery. Only one thing is clear: Milan Kundera, who died this July, is out of the game.
In fact, Kundera had been out of the game for many years. He had a real chance in 1984, when he was “overtaken” by Jaroslav Seifert.
Much has changed since the Czech writer’s heyday. Both in literature and in the Swedish Academy, which has also been rocked by major scandals in recent years. One was to honor the controversial writer Peter Handke, an author who denies war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. With the latter, the case directly in the narrow circles of the Academy. The husband of one of the members of the institution, Jean-Claude Arnault, was accused by 18 women of sexual abuse.
Both events had a great influence on the current form of the commission. There was a turnover of many members (while they were guaranteed lifetime membership in the commission) and academics also became more aware that the prize should be even less Eurocentric or pro-Western, but should look around the world.
Nobody stands a chance
According to the French news agency AFP, the Academy is now even consulting its findings with experts in order to broaden its horizons in world literature. Which sounds rather strange, at least because the Academy slightly devalues the belief in its own competence. And it’s also somewhat frustrating. “Given the Academy’s commitment to exploring other geographical regions, I’m afraid no one has a chance to really guess the winner, not even people with PhDs in literature,” Victor Malm, culture editor of the Swedish tabloid Expressen, told AFP.
It was in Expressen on Tuesday that a comment was published that returned to the current faux pas of the Nobel Prizes. The chemistry award for a trio of scientists researching quantum dots (hopefully they will also be used in literature) was accidentally presented a few hours earlier than it should have been. One mistakenly sent e-mail with a press release was all it took. The Academy tried to deny everything… before the cameras came on, secretary Mads Malm stepped outside the proverbial door and announced the names of the new laureates… quantum dot experts.
“Do you know how wonderful it is for an editor to have four extra hours to find the best author or rethink a critical angle?” Expressen commentator Gunilla Brodrej praised the Academy’s mistake, in fact a cultural columnist who would like to see similar leaks they also covered literature.
I can’t disagree with Brodrej. Of course, it would be wonderful to know in advance who is going to be the new laureate of the most famous literary prize on the planet. And not only because it would make work easier for me and my Swedish colleague.
“We only care about literary quality. The laureate must be someone who produces absolutely exceptional literature,” Academy member Ellen Matson explained the criteria for the Nobel Prize for Literature at the end of September. As can be seen from the quote, there is not much concrete in the short conversation. He reveals that more than two hundred names are considered in the first stages of evaluation, then the list is whittled down to five. All the works of the given authors are read. And one is chosen. Living. From anywhere. If he writes well. And again: he does not approve of genocide.
The Academy wants to be more global, more diverse in its selection, but apparently it still doesn’t care about being more transparent. Anxiously hiding the results of your reflection on the best literature has the great advantage that no one bothers you until the moment of publication. No one asks, no one objects, and certainly no one questions your authority.
It is no coincidence that most other important prices have been experiencing a crisis in recent years. No one watches the Oscars (unless celebrities slap each other and insult their wives live), the Grammys are boycotted, and other awards are adding new categories in an effort to stay relevant. The best film in the category of box office hits is already a cry for help.
No one needs a Nobel Prize for best airport paperback. But would it be so bad if academics published at least the five nominees, who otherwise remain secret for the next fifty years (sic!)? The seriousness of the prices will not be particularly threatened, on the contrary – can you imagine a world in which the name of not one, but perhaps five authors is mentioned in the media, on social networks and in bookstores? In which journalists, but also readers, booksellers, and publishers have more time to familiarize themselves with the work of the new winners, to fall in love with his or her novels? It has won the Booker Prize, National Book Award and Magnesia Litera. And it works.
So what are the bookmakers saying this year? They suggest names such as the Norwegian Jón Fosse or the Chinese Chan Süe. You can still find a few copies of Fosse in Czech translation, but not yet the works of the Chinese writer. By the way, Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 laureate, was finally published in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago, whose victory surprised the whole world. To this day, not much is heard about him. The timing just didn’t work out, before the unknown writer had enough to impress with published novels, interest in him simply waned. If anyone is to blame, it is precisely the needlessly secretive academics.