The Nobel Prize in Literature is a total jackpot. The sheer vulgarity of the amount involved — over 1 million euros for established writers who hardly need the money to make their ends meet — is softened by the presence of the Swedish royal family at the award ceremony. It is one of the few remaining functions of European royal families that make sense to me: to give ridiculous financial transactions a stamp of timeless elegance.
The Swedish Academy (in addition to being a Swedish reggae band) is a prestigious cultural institution. But its 18 members don’t exactly make a happy family. Novelist Kerstin Ekman announced she was leaving the Academy in 1989 because she didn’t think her fellow immortals reacted strongly enough to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Sixteen years later, Knut Ahnlund, an expert on Danish literature, declared he would quit the Academy because he disagreed with his colleagues’ decision to award the prize to Austria’s grand-mere terrible Elfriede Jelinek, whose work he described as chaotic and pornographic.
Both Ekman and Ahnlund forgot that there is no such thing as free will in the lavish building on Källargränd 4. Serving in the Swedish Academy is akin to a life sentence. Ekman and Ahnlund can bang on about how they are no longer members of Academy all they want, but the Academy will not listen. Once you are a member, you have institutionalized your destiny. You can neither resign nor get kicked out. There is no way out. No wonder Sweden and Bergman produced each other: nightmares have a tendency to converge in the north.
So now we are down to 16 Swedes (12 men and 4 women) passing judgement on the best writer in the world — not exactly an easy task. The Swedish academicians could probably more easily agree on the objective criteria for the country’s best Surströmming (fermented herring) — “the putrid stench of the one from a restaurant in Uppsala is empirically more intense than the one from Malmoe”? — than on “the most outstanding oeuvre in an ideal(ist) direction,” as bequeathed by Alfred Nobel back in 1895.
How do they choose? Do they read? In the original? Or in the translation? What if the writer has not been translated into Swedish? How much can 16 Swedes really know about world literature? Remember, these are people who actually have other things to do, their own books to write. They do not sit all year long and read world literature. And even if they did — why should we care?
The whole thing is a bit of a joke. And it is a well-known and widespread criticism of the Nobel Prize that some great writers never got it (Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust etc.), while some more dubious authors did (i.e. Pearl Buck). The Nobel Prize, however, still has an allure of prestige that makes it an object of desire, speculation and envy par excellence. The Nobel Prize is the holy grail of literature. It’s better than the not-yet-released iPhone 5.
Then something funny happened on the way to Stockholm this year. A group of pranksters from Serbia made their entire nation believe that a writer of their own had won. State-run TV, news agencies, radio and several newspapers got punk’d. As the AP later reported:
Moments before the Swedish Academy announced the real winner – Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer – on Thursday, unknown hackers said on what looked like an official Nobel Prize website that it was Serbian writer Dobrica Cosic.
The site included a photo of the 90-year-old Cosic, quotations from one of his books, and a description heralding him as “the last dissident of the 20th century, witness of a declining era, as well as the prophet of an emerging one.”
The hoax was elaborate and fully digital: a fake website mimicked the official site of the Swedish Academy. A fake email was sent from what seemed like the official address of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences confirming the news. Several fake Twitter accounts spread the information.
The AP correctly states that “Cosic is popular among his countrymen, but he’s also considered a proponent of the hardline Serbian nationalism which led to the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1990s’”. What the AP fails to report — and what some reports in Western media did not mention — is that the pranksters, who later described themselves as a “non-profit self-organised group of web activists,” organized their Nobel Prize online flash mob in order to protest the fact the 90-year-old Cosic was “proclaimed by some to be a serious contender” for the award, despite his ties to the “most dangerous Serbian pseudo-democratic circles in the new era.”
A fake Nobel going to Ćosić was a slap in the face of Serbian nationalism.
The purpose of our activity is to bring to the attention of the Serbian public the dangerous influence of the writer Dobrica Cosic.
Terrible consequences of decades of Cosic’s political, literary and public activity are felt to this day, both by his own country and throughout the region.
“Dobrica Cosic is not a recipient of the Nobel Prize, although the general public in Serbia and he himself believed he was for 15 full minutes,” said the hackers.“We find some solace in that fact.”
The Serbian Academy was not amused and that is understandable. But this was nonetheless a brilliant example of hacktivism: it was political and playful, critical and carnivalesque, intelligent and irreverent.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the Nobel Prize in Literature is itself an objective measure of anything, or an indisputable confirmation of greatness. The Nobel Prize in Literature and the Swedish Academy need more ingenious hoaxes and more talented pranksters outside of Serbia: as a kind of reality check, and a reminder that foolishness and vanity are easily disguised, but also easily uncovered. In all of us.