What’s Wrong With the Nobel Prize in Literature

Tim Parks

So the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer wins the Nobel prize for literature. Aside from a couple of long poems available on the net, I haven’t read Tranströmer, yet I feel sure this is a healthy decision in every way. Above all for the Nobel jury. Let me explain.

There are eighteen of them, members of an organization called the Swedish Academy, which back at the end of the 19th century was given the task of awarding the Nobel. At the time two members suggested it was a mistake to accept the job. The Academy’s founding brief, back in 1786, was to promote the “purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language”. Was this compatible with choosing the finest oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” from anywhere in the world?

All members are Swedish and most of them hold full time professorial jobs in Swedish universities. On the present jury there are just five women and no woman has ever held the presidency. Only one member was born after 1960. This is partly because you cannot resign from the Academy. It’s a life sentence. So there’s rarely any new blood. For the past few years, however, two members have refused to cooperate with deliberations for the prize because of previous disagreements, one over the reaction, or lack of it, to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the other over awarding the prize to Elfriede Jelinek, whom he felt was “chaotic and pornographic.”

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