What the literature Nobel’s ugly descent will cost publishers, authors, and readers

Now what?
Now what?
Image: TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via Reuters
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This week as the Nobel prizes for science and economics are handed out, there’s a notable omission from the media storm. For the first time since World War II, there will be no Nobel in literature.

The Swedish academy, which selects the literature winner, has been through a very public meltdown since numerous allegations of sexual abuse against Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of member Katarina Frostenson, resurfaced last year. After a handful of members left in response to, or in connection with, the handling of the controversy, the academy announced it would postpone the prize announcement until next year, when there will be two Nobel winners.

Yesterday Arnault was convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in jail.

What do readers lose from having no Nobel announcement this year? It’s easier, perhaps, to consider what they might have gained: Not very much.

There’s no sense of urgency for a literary Nobel, aside from the fact that, for the most part, it can’t be awarded posthumously. It’s a lifetime achievement award for writers, meaning it’s much more difficult to talk about who “deserves” to win a Nobel than it is for, say, the US national book awards, or the Man Booker, which are given out to specific works in a year. (Really though, for any literary prize, it’s hopeless to debate something so arbitrary.) Indeed, the rules stipulate that the nominees for a prize year can’t be revealed until 50 years later.

In 2016, when musician Bob Dylan won the prize, it was a bummer for the publishing industry. Because book prizes aren’t primarily about giving out awards to people who deserve them; they’re about deciding who gets a sticker on the front cover of her book, who should be showered with public praise and/or skepticism. It’s an incredibly powerful marketing tool, a publicity award more than a literary one.

The prize of course affects authors differently. Readers generally benefit most when the writer is relatively less known. When Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich received the prize in 2014 and 2015 respectively, it prompted new translations of their works into English, and helped readers around the world to discover worthy writing.