No Nobel Prize for Literature? Thank Goodness.

Robert Messenger:

Did anyone even notice?

The Times Literary Supplement has a Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal, named after the French writer who declined the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964. Sartre didn’t want institutional authority for his opinions and stances: “A writer who takes political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his,” he announced. “These means are the written word.” Sartre had informed the Swedish Academy, the body that chooses the winner of the literary Nobel, that he wouldn’t accept the prize, but it went ahead anyway. Karl Ragnar Gierow, the academy’s secretary, replied: “The academy’s award is not guided by the possible winner’s wishes but only by the decision of the academy’s 18 members.”

Sartre was wrong about most things, but in this he was prescient. The Nobel Prize in literature gilds no one’s laurels. It is a club no one should want to belong to. Fifty-four years later, the Swedish Academy came to the same conclusion and voided the 2018 prize. This decision was made not out of intellectual modesty or chagrin at the long list of mediocrities it has chosen, but due to a #MeToo scandal involving the husband of one of the 18 academicians. Back-and-forth accusations, resignations, and counter-resignations left the academy without a quorum. The husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, was convicted of rape on October 1 and sentenced to two years in prison. It is not to excuse his terrible acts or belittle his victims to say that the academy’s decision to take a year off brings an appropriate curtain down on more than a century of foolishness, parochialism, and melodrama.