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With No Nobel Prize in Literature This Year, Another Award Steps In

The three finalists for the New Academy’s prize in literature, created in the absence of a Nobel Prize this year, from left: Maryse Condé, Kim Thúy and Neil Gaiman.
The three finalists for the New Academy’s prize in literature, created in the absence of a Nobel Prize this year, from left: Maryse Condé, Kim Thúy and Neil Gaiman. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images;Jean Francois; Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP

In a year when the Swedish Academy won’t name a Nobel laureate in literature, a pop-up nonprofit called the New Academy is aiming to fill the gap.

On Oct. 12 in Stockholm, on the heels of the various Nobel announcements, the New Academy’s jury, led by publishing-industry veteran Ann Pålsson, will name the winner of the New Prize in Literature. The organization sprang up after the Swedish Academy said in May that it would postpone the Nobel in literature for a year.

The New Academy stuck to the Nobel calendar, in which winners are named in October and receive their awards in December, but it departed from tradition by opening up much of its decision-making. Early in the summer, librarians across Sweden nominated 47 authors, including Don DeLillo and Elena Ferrante.

Then the public joined in and after more than 30,000 online votes, the list was winnowed to four finalists: Maryse Condé, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and Kim Thúy. Ms. Pålsson and her three fellow jurors, all eminences in Swedish arts and letters, will choose the winner.

Haruki Murakami was named a fourth finalist for the New Academy prize but withdrew from consideration.
Haruki Murakami was named a fourth finalist for the New Academy prize but withdrew from consideration. Photo: Reuters

Mr. Murakami, the Japanese novelist known for books such as “Kafka on the Shore” and “Norwegian Wood,” withdrew his name from consideration.

Ms. Condé, an 81-year-old academic and author born on Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, broke out as a novelist in the 1980s with “Segu,” a saga that sweeps through African history.

Ms. Thúy, 50, was born in Vietnam and as a young girl fled the strife-torn country for Canada. That journey has informed her three novels, including her debut “Ru,” published in 2009.

“My knees got weak,” said Ms. Thúy when she learned she was a finalist, though she plans to be sound asleep when the winner is announced. “It would be very wrong for me to win,” she said, adding that her three books aren’t equivalent to “one book of anyone else on that list.”

Mr. Gaiman, 57, a Briton, is known for his graphic novels (the “Sandman” series) as well as books for children (“Coraline”) and adults (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”). After learning through Twitter both that he was on the long list and then a finalist, he also set hopes low, saying that simply making the cut was thrilling.

“It’s a hugely nice thing to be placed in company of 47 fantastic writers from around the world,” he said, mentioning Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “What I really liked was that they were getting librarians involved in the process.”

The Swedish Academy canceled this year’s Nobel in literature as it attempts to recover from a scandal over allegations of sexual assault, saying it would award two prizes next year. The man at the center of the scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, was found guilty of rape on Monday and sentenced to two years in prison.

This isn’t the first year without a Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academy has awarded them since 1901, but none during seven years around the first and second World Wars.

News of this year’s cancellation dismayed many in Sweden’s publishing and artistic circles. “We love the Nobel Prize, and we were so sad when they said it wasn’t to be awarded,” Ms. Pålsson said.

Alexandra Pascalidou, a journalist and writer in Sweden, marshaled dozens of volunteers in forming the New Academy, drawing up a website and spreading the word on social media.

“I thought we have to do something new,” Ms. Pascalidou said. “So, I called the do-ers I know.” In June, she enlisted Ms. Pålsson, who had edited Ms. Pascalidou’s most recent book, to head the jury.

To cover expenses and raise a monetary prize (the literature Nobel laureate receives more than $1 million), the New Academy has enlisted sponsors, crowdfunding, and is selling T-shirts, hoodies and iPhone cases. The group’s Kickstarter page states a goal of 250,000 Swedish krona (about $28,000) and thus far has drawn more than $9,000 in pledges.

It plans to shut down after the award ceremony and celebrations in December. At that point, Ms. Pålsson said, “I think we’ll be pretty happy and tired.”

Whether the prize will generate the buzz that the Nobel does is an open question.

“I don’t know that I would expect that we will see the jump in sales that we would expect to see from a Nobel win,” said Rachel Cass, buying and inventory manager at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.

The New Academy prize is unlikely to exert the same heft as the Nobel, said Jake Reiss, founder of the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, Ala., which sells only new hardbacks signed by the author. He has some signed Gaimans on hand but nothing by Ms. Condé or Ms. Thúy, he said.

Still, he applauded the New Academy’s effort as better than nothing. “Heaven forbid, if there were no Super Bowl or the World Series, if the players went on strike or whatever,” he said, “it wouldn’t be the same—but that’s all you got.”

Write to Brenda Cronin at brenda.cronin@wsj.com

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