Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The future of the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan

The future of the Nobel Prize 

With the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan many were pleased to see the Swedish Academy embrace a far broader view of 'literature' (and many others were, of course, disappointed, confused, and outraged); see my recent overview and links

Regardless of what position one took, it certainly looked like under Sara Danius' stewardship (which also saw last year's genre-stretching selection of Svetlana Alexievich) the Swedish Academy had moved towards a far more wide-ranging interpretation of what the prize could be awarded for. What next ? we wondered -- assuming that rather than returning to the more or less traditional novelists and poets who have dominated the Nobel there would be more 'bold' choices in the future. 

Now I'm wondering whether Bob Dylan's (non-)reaction to getting this 'great honor' won't lead to the pendulum in fact swinging back, really hard, and really fast. 
The new Nobel laureate seems singularly unimpressed with this 'honor' bestowed on him. As widely reported (here and here, for example), Dylan has so far ignored the Swedish Academy's efforts to contact him. They haven't been able to get through -- which at this point has to be taken to mean: he has no interest in hearing from them. 

Obviously, he is free to do as he pleases, but at a certain point it's hard not to see this behavior as both rude and disrespectful. (For all those who argue Dylan is a reclusive artist who doesn't make many public statements: come on -- he's a performer, he's been on stage in front of thousands of people on several nights since he won the prize, and regardless of any- and everything it's simply polite to take the Swedish Academy's (private) call, even if just to tell them Thanks, but no thanks, or just Thanks, or that they can stuff the prize where the sun don't shine, or whatever. Some sort of acknowledgement doesn't seem to be asking too much.) 
And this is where it gets interesting -- not so much regarding what happens next with Dylan and the Nobel this year (who cares ?), but what happens with the Nobel in future years. 

One thing the prize does rely on is respect. Even Sartre, who turned the prize down, did so respectfully. Even those who couldn't care less have expressed their thanks and said they were honored. 

Dylan -- who is, as I've mentioned, the first laureate bigger than the prize itself since Winston Churchill -- doesn't need to play along, and he isn't playing along. And while Sara Danius is all smiles about this, this is a humiliation that severely undermines the agenda, and the vision for the prize that those who supported the selection of Dylan-as-laureate have.
I think it's clear that there was disagreement at the Academy regarding this selection -- the delay in announcing the winner by a week (and it was a delay, no matter what they try to say) suggesting considerable disagreement (though no one has come forward publicly, as has happened with previous controversial choices (such as that of Elfriede Jelinek)). And now surely Dylan's behavior hands those opposed to giving him the prize -- a sizable minority, I assume -- a perfect argument for going back to the safe, more traditional way of doing things -- like awarding the prize to someone who mainly writes books. 

I don't know who led the way in trying to convince the fellow Academicians to go with Dylan, but obviously those arguments now look a whole lot less convincing. The Swedish Academy might want to show how cool they can be with their literature-expanding selections, but the one thing they can't afford -- and which surely upsets many of them -- is someone shitting on the prize like this. And Dylan's behavior is the ultimate denigration of the prize: even denouncement is better, because that still suggests the prize means something. To ignore the prize devalues everything the Swedish Academy does. 

I previously argued that it would take years for the Swedish Academy to recover from this selection, to re-build the Nobel brand, but right now the situation looks far worse than I had imagined. Obviously this million-dollar-prize will always attract considerable attention -- but this is a lot to recover from. And it will be interesting to see whether they continue to try to make 'bold' choices, or return to their conservative traditions. (My guess is the latter: I think there will be a forceful institutional backlash against the Dylan-faction, who will be hard-pressed to live this down (if the situaion doesn't change in the coming days and weeks).)


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