LDear Swedish Academy, I don’t want to be in your skin this year. Only at first glance are you better off than so many other cultural institutions at the moment.
Because you already had your state of emergency in the past two years: In 2018, the Nobel Prize for Literature was canceled because you were in the greatest crisis of your long history, badly shaken by scandals about misappropriated funding, pierced inside information and about a rapist who was with one of yours Members was married. All of this was accompanied by public mud battles that almost completely ruined your reputation.
After a complete overhaul of staff, you were in the lucky position of being able to award two prizes in 2019. And you did that in a Solomonic way. There was something for everybody. Not only was the gender distribution optimally balanced.
If Peter Handke was a red rag because of his serbophilia, he could stick to the committed feminist and nationalism-critical Olga Tokarczuk. But those who considered their work to be too light in narrative or even crude-esoteric would compensate Handke’s undisputed historical literary importance.
Oh, if you only ever had one pair to choose, then you could easily throw off all critical or identity-political demands. You could place the difficult lyricist from the Eskimo language, which is threatened with disappearing, next to the US novelist who is critical of Trump, or couple the black hip-hop rhapsodes with the old white Poeta doctus. Young and old, bestseller and niche, reactionary and progressive, analog and digital, orient and occident, tree and bark, ying and yang – every fall, the Nobel Prize for Literature would be the union of opposites, squaring the circle, oh what: a world formula of harmony.
Unfortunately, you have to make another decision and inevitably make enemies. In addition to praise, you will attract harsh criticism, you will polarize yourself instead of balancing the poles. Like 2015 with Svetlana Alexievich (“That’s journalism, not literature!”) Or 2016 with Bob Dylan (“That’s yes lyrics, no poetry!) or 2017 with Kazuo Ishiguro (“These are readable bestsellers, not works of art!”).
When your permanent secretary Mats Malm steps in front of the famous door next Thursday at 1 p.m., the decision will be twisted in his mouth: why not this and why not that and, if so, why then of all things?
You just can’t get out of the number, dear academy, and that’s extremely unfair. Because you will not have made it easy for yourself, especially this year, which was intended as a return to normal Nobel Prize and is now taking place again under exceptional conditions, albeit in a completely different manner. The traditional Nobel Prize banquet on December 10th with more than a thousand guests has already been canceled, for the first time since 1956.
Your current seven-member Nobel Prize Committee has been compiling a kind of longlist from the hundreds of suggestions since February and then shortlisted five candidates in May. Over the summer, your members have – there are currently 16; two seats are still vacant – the complete works of the nominees have been studied.
The selection committee, which consists of four of your members and three external experts, including the young literary critic Rebecka Kärde, who lives in Berlin, has meanwhile written its own statements on each of the five candidates. You have been discussing their proposals since September, and these days there will be a decisive vote: If you get more than half of the votes, you will soon be nine million Swedish kronor (around 860,000 euros) richer.
If you look at the odds of the bookmakers, you can find the usual suspects up front: Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Lyudmila Ulitskaja, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Anne Carson. At the top is Maryse Condé. But the prognostic value of such bets is already diminished by the fact that Amos Oz is in 10th place – the great Israeli writer died in 2018.
There are many indications that you will surprise us readers, dear academy. And the loud argument about the Nobel Prize for Literature, about books, about works, individual sentences, is in truth the best thing that can happen to literature in these times.
Sincerely, Your Richard Kämmerlings
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