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.

It should be easy to award a lifetime achievement award in literature. Writers have long working lives, and there is plenty of time for reasonable opinion to coalesce. The vast majority of the great writers of the last century were amply feted well before their deaths. The prize originated in 1901 when Leo Tolstoy was almost universally regarded as the greatest living writer. And so the first Nobel Prize in literature went to Sully Prudhomme, a poet not even the most ardent Francophile knows as anything other than the first writer to win the Nobel. Tolstoy didn’t die until 1910, but the academy never saw its way to giving him the prize before he got pneumonia at the Astapovo rail station. Chekhov, Ibsen, Zola, Hardy, James, and Twain were all alive and acclaimed in the first decade of the 20th century. None won the prize, and the course of the literary Nobel was set.

The prize’s 114 winners include some of history’s greatest writers—Yeats, Mann, Faulkner, Kawabata, Camus—but not many. The problem lies in the Swedish Academy. Founded in 1786, the academy’s mission is to promote Swedish literature. It’s a worthy task, if a small one. Depending on one’s tastes, when one thinks of Swedish literature, one is likely to think of Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking) or Stieg Larsson (creator of the girl with a dragon tattoo). The country has produced a single writer of world-class stature: the playwright August Strindberg. He died in 1912 without, of course, ever receiving the Nobel. There have, though, been seven Swedish literary laureates. There are not even 10 million speakers of Swedish in the world, and the Swedish national encyclopedia lists it 91st among world languages for number of native speakers, below Kazakh, Haitian Creole, and Quechua. Yet the country has won the fifth-most Nobel Prizes in literature—just behind Germany.

The parochialism and literary backscratching of the Swedish Academy reached its nadir in 1974 when two Swedes shared the prize, the novelist Eyvind Johnson and the poet Harry Martinson. Both were, yes, among the 18 members of the Swedish Academy. Like all of you, I’ve no knowledge of Johnson’s work, but I did encounter Martinson’s poetry once. He’s known for a science fiction epic about a ship lost in space, Aniara. The vessel is carrying survivors of a wrecked Earth off to colonize Mars, and the passengers get existential lessons from the ship’s computer. The poem was made into an opera in 1959, and a couple of decades back a copy passed through the used record store I was working in. I was interested in modern classical music and especially the idea that new operas could be written. I gave it a spin. Let me just say that the electronic tape loop was an instrument in vogue when composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl got his commission, and it’s not an instrument that has worn well. And the verse? Dreadful is not the word.

A Google Books search brought this passage to hand:

In any glass
that stands untouched for a sufficient time
gradually a bubble in the glass will move
infinitely slowly to a different point
in the body of the glass, and in a thousand years
the bubble makes a journey in its glass.

I’m sure it calls tears from stone in the original Swedish.

As the century wound along, leftist politics and anti-Americanism began to further disfigure the prize. That the Swedish Academy believed in 1964 that Sartre was the only possible winner suggests a tendency to value political concerns over literary ones. If Sartre did at least have some literary distinction as a philosopher and novelist, what explains the choice of Dario Fo in 1997 other than the Italian’s hard-left politics? His work is a literary achievement on par with Lenny Bruce’s—something to talk about, never to read.

In 2004, an Austrian mediocrity named Elfriede Jelinek got the prize, and the only possible explanation is the academy’s relishing her public role in opposing Austria’s anti-E.U. firebrand Jörg Haider—or maybe it was her opposition to the Iraq war. Reviewer Joel Agee in the New York Times remarked of her tenth novel, Greed, “Nothing is farther from Jelinek’s mind than advancing a plot or even just telling a story. Her business is social dissection. Not vivisection, for none of her specimens are alive.” I am happy to take his word for it. In a typical Nobel oversight, Jelinek is the sole representative of a great Austro-Hungarian literary tradition to receive the Nobel. Not Rilke, not Kafka, not Altenberg, not Zweig, not Hofmannsthal, not Schnitzler, not Musil or Bernhard or Broch. Not Heimito von Doderer. Not Joseph Roth. Not Paul Celan.

In recent years the academy has veered between absurdity and predictability. The defining moment came two years ago, when Bob Dylan was awarded the prize. Now, I admire Dylan’s songs and think “She Belongs to Me” a pop masterpiece, but a Nobel winner he ought not to be. Even if you believe him to be the most significant American literary figure of recent decades—that knocking at your door is Cormac McCarthy wanting a word—he is disqualified on the rare grounds that the Nobel Prize in literature is smaller beer than Bob Dylan. The prize is at its best when it tells us of a distinguished writer we wouldn’t otherwise know of. Naguib Mahfouz is a literary giant, but it took the prize to bring his works into English. Svetlana Alexievich and Patrick Modiano might never have seen the light of foreign-language publication without the Stockholm laurels. They are not giants, but it is good to have their work pouring into English. Dylan can fill any stadium anywhere any night he likes. He made this plain by leaving the academy blowin’ in the wind for day after embarrassing day and then failing to show up to accept the award. Ungracious: maybe. But Dylan is well known for going his own way and ignoring the public’s desires. If they had wanted someone to preen in Stockholm, there was always Philip Roth.

Looking to rebound in 2017, the committee went for the thoroughly unremarkable British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. His claim to fame is that his books have proved useful fodder for the movies. It’s unimaginable that people a century hence will revel in The Buried Giant (2015), just his seventh novel and a weird Arthurian pastiche that it took him a decade to produce.

Which brings us to this October and the voided prize. No one missed the flurry of literary breathlessness or the spectacle of publishers rushing to buy rights to books they could have had for nothing the day before. Something called the New Academy in Stockholm, intending to fill the void, gave a prize to a Guadeloupean novelist, but isn’t it time to give up the Swedish literary preening? Writers, vainest of the vain, will always want the Nobel (and the million-odd dollars that come with it). We should spare them the temptation. Cancel the prize. Let the Swedish Academy reconstitute its membership and focus on its original work. Yes, there’s Alfred Nobel’s money. But it can be dispersed to academies just like the Swedish one and do some good encouraging translation in languages from Arabic to Zulu. Let a thousand academies bloom and spare us Swedish blushes.