Why you should care

Because the literature prize has been a stuffy boys club for too long.

This OZY series explores how institutions are fighting for public trust. This OZY series explores how institutions are battling declining trust — and what's replacing them.

Mikaela Blomqvist prefers reading quietly with a cup of tea and distances herself from the daily gossip within the small, insular cultural scene in Sweden. But that doesn’t mean the well-known, 31-year-old literary critic doesn’t have opinions. She just prefers to deliver them in assured, measured tones.

That might be why the Swedish Academy tapped Blomqvist of the Göteborgs-Posten — Sweden’s second-largest paper — to be on the committee that will recommend the next winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s a major leap for Blomqvist.

“This seems like a very perfect job. To be able to read a lot and especially if you get to discuss [books] with competent people,” she says, seemingly oblivious to the importance of her task.

She’s not nervous about joining the literati, but does acknowledge that she’ll have to work harder, perhaps read more, to be taken seriously.

It’s the first time since the prize was first awarded in 1901 that nonmembers will join the prestigious committee that chooses — on behalf of the Nobel Foundation — the world’s highest honor in literature. The foundation has insisted on the change in the hopes that new members will restore trust after the academy was rocked by its own #MeToo moment and other scandals last year. And by adding young members (Blomqvist is joined by Rebecka Kärde, 27), the foundation hopes to rebut criticism that its laureates are too male and too mainstream.

Last year, Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault, 72, who is married to Swedish poet and now ex-academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused of sexually assaulting nearly 20 women, including the academy’s secretary. Arnault was found guilty on two counts of assault and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Arnault and Frostenson are also accused of misusing academy funds, and an internal investigation found that Frostenson told her husband the names of at least seven past winners early so he could place large bets in Paris. The academy has said it “regrets” the incidents.

 

In the aftermath, eight of “The Eighteen,” as academy members refer to themselves, resigned or, in the case of Frostenson, were pushed out. Discredited and without a quorum, the academy was not allowed to nominate a literature prize last year. It hopes to name winners for 2018 and 2019 in October if the Nobel Foundation agrees.

Lars Heikensten, the Nobel Foundation CEO, said in a statement that selecting new members “means that a distance is created for the events of the past year,” and the academy “is clearly on the way to regaining its credibility.” Anders Olsson, the new permanent secretary who’s in charge of scrubbing away the memories of last year, pledges to improve communication with the public, make the academy’s work more transparent and enhance the ethical conduct of members.

Blomqvist downplays the pressure of being tapped to help restore confidence in the Nobel Prize in literature. Instead, she modestly plays up her strengths: She speaks and reads English, German and Spanish, and occasionally moderates panel discussions with authors at the Literature House in her hometown of Göteborg.

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Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault (center) is escorted out after the first day of his appeal trial on Nov. 12, 2018, in Stockholm.

Source Getty Images

In true Nobel fashion, Blomqvist didn’t know she was being considered until she got a call from the academy. The new, 10-person selection committee, which officially starts this month, includes five outside participants and five academy members. They will create a shortlist out of the estimated 200 authors or poets who are typically nominated each year. It’s a lot of reading — a pure joy for the woman who devoured Goethe, Kafka and Duras as a teenager. “Reading is being in someone’s language. It takes me out of my own head,” Blomqvist says.

Göteborg is a five-hour train ride from Stockholm. Blomqvist has never been to the forum to hear a Nobel laureate talk or to drink wine with the literary elites. But she refuses to critique the academy and has stopped reading the often contradictory daily reports on the scandals. “It’s not something for me to have an opinion about,” she says. “It’s for Swedish courts to decide, and they did.”

But she does know literary criticism, a profession she’s honed for 10 years at Göteborgs-Posten, a part-time job she began as a freelancer while still in college. (She also holds a master’s degree in psychology and works as a psychotherapist one day a week.) Blomqvist thinks Bob Dylan should not have been given a Nobel Prize in 2016: “To me, he’s a music artist. I’m not a fan.” She also pooh-poohed 2017 winner Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day: “He’s a competent writer, but I don’t think he has his own voice.” She does approve of the kudos bestowed on French author Patrick Modiano, “who I think is lovely,” British playwright Harold Pinter and Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek.

Olsson says Blomqvist and Kärde, who were honored by the academy in 2018 for their literary criticism, are helpful because “old age can be negative in dealing with certain trends in contemporary writing.” As the only two women now on the committee — Olsson says he will prioritize women when filling remaining academy openings — they’ll also bring a fresh perspective to a group that has only bestowed a Nobel Prize for literature on 15 women over more than a century.

For her part, Blomqvist says she brings an open mind on who might get a nod. Her past critiques favor a strong voice, and she seems to prefer playwrights over novelists. As a non-academy member, she has not been guaranteed an equal say by the elites, “but I don’t see any need for that kind of assurance,” she says. She pauses, adding that she’s not nervous about joining the literati but does acknowledge that she’ll have to work harder, perhaps read more, to be taken seriously. For his part, Olsson still isn’t sure about the external members. “We do not know yet if the experimental and enlarged 10-person committee will be perpetuated after 2020,” he says, ominously.

Blomqvist isn’t intimidated. “Since I have been writing criticism for a decade now, and sometimes very harsh criticism, I tend not to worry about what people think of me,” she says. “For me, the important thing is to be true to myself and to what I believe.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Mikaela Blomqvist 

  • What’s the last book you finished? Re-read August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata
  • What do you worry about? Nothing. I sleep very well at night. 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Books. My friends. That’s two. 
  • Who’s your hero? I don’t know if I have any heroes. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To watch plays I’ve only read, like The Ghost Sonata. I want to see it staged. I want to visit Madrid, which I’ve never done. And of course lots of other places.

Read more: Game of Tomes: the struggle for literary prizes.

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