Throughout October the annual celebrations of human achievement that are the Nobel prizes have again turned the spotlight of global attention on a small number of especially smart, gifted and brave individuals.
Prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry and economics have all been awarded, along with the peace prize, which went to Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege and Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”.
There has, however, been one conspicuous exception. There has been no Nobel Prize in Literature this year.
That’s because, officially, there has been a “crisis” in the body that awards the literature Nobel – the Swedish Academy.
“The Swedish Academy is in a state of crisis following a period of strong disagreement between members over important issues,” it announced in April. It said that it had commissioned a legal firm to look into “the extent of the Academy’s knowledge of sexual assaults” involving the husband of one of the Academy’s members. He was subsequently convicted of rape.
At the same time, the investigation “revealed a breach of the Academy’s secrecy rules regarding work with the Nobel Prize in Literature”, the Academy said. Amid the turmoil, it then announced that no literature prize would be awarded in 2018.
It would be the first year that no literature Nobel had been awarded since 1949.
The loss is, however, only temporary. The Academy’s intention is that the 2018 literature prize will be awarded next year, at the same time as the 2019 prize. This has happened five times before, although not for many decades.
In September, the Academy said that during the summer and early autumn it had “continued its efforts in re-establishing trust for its activities and the legitimacy of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. It said that this work has now been completed, meaning that the awarding of the 2018 and 2019 prizes could well go ahead as planned.
Recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature include Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017, “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”; Bob Dylan in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”; and Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.