A scrappy group of Swedish book lovers catapulted their “alternative” Nobel literary prize into worldwide fame

Alt lit.
Alt lit.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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The Nobel Prize for literature is falling apart. The Swedish Academy, which gives out the 9 million Swedish krona award (about US $1 million), is riddled with sexual abuse accusations, including one conviction of rape, and charges of cronyism and corruption. In the wake of the still-unraveling scandal, it’s taking the year off.

In its place is a sunny antidote: The New Academy, a self-organized group of 100 or so volunteers, has sprouted up in the last six months in hopes of providing an alternative global literature prize this year.

What started as a group of concerned Swedish actors, singers, journalists, and writers has reached readers all around the world. The group got together in May, after the disgraced academy announced it would postpone the prize announcement until 2019. It started by inviting every librarian in Sweden to nominate authors for the prize. Then the New Academy asked the public to vote on the resulting 47 nominees. More than 32,000 responses came in.

Today at 12pm Stockholm time, four expert judges announced Maryse Condé as the winner, from a shortlist that also included Kim Thúy and Neil Gaiman. (Haruki Murakami was also shortlisted, but he withdrew his nomination saying he needed to focus on writing.)

“I think we need more democracy, more transparency, and more equality when it comes to academies and who’s going to judge what,” says Alexandra Pascalidou, the journalist and author who first tweeted (link in Swedish) in May about her idea to create an alternative prize.

In early July, The Guardian picked up the story. Two weeks later, a report from The New York Times followed. The massive English-language press coverage has catapulted the story beyond anything the New Academy volunteers could have imagined. ”It just exploded,” says Pascalidou, adding, “We live in times—people have their own opinions, they want to contribute, they love literature, they see the importance of literature as an antidote to the culture of violence that is unfortunately spreading around the world.”

Despite Pascalidou’s first rallying emails and meetings, it’s a largely leaderless effort, says publisher and journalist Catharina Hansson, who is on the communications committee.

“No one is in charge of anything. We don’t have any big bosses or any small bosses,” she says, describing an informal but smooth process of communication across email, Facebook groups, Slack, and chat groups. ”Sometimes it’s a little messy because you don’t remember where the thread was,” she says, “But you usually catch up.”

The New Academy set a goal of raising 1 million Swedish Krona (about US $111,000) for the cash prize but hasn’t met it. So far, it has raised just $18,500 on Kickstarter and a small amount of additional funds. But the New Academy will keep scraping together money until an awards gala on Dec. 9. Afterwards, the group says it will disband.

This story has been updated to include the winner of The New Academy Prize in Literature.