Nobel Literature Prize postponed after #MeToo turmoil

Seen as bearers of high culture, the The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786, is traditionally known for its integrity and discretion
AFP

Stockholm (AFP) – For the first time in almost 70 years there will be no Nobel Literature Prize this year, after the Swedish Academy that selects the laureate failed to contain a deep crisis stemming from the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo campaign.

“We find it necessary to commit time to recovering public confidence in the Academy before the next laureate can be announced,” the Academy’s interim permanent secretary Anders Olsson said in a statement Friday, adding that two prizes would be announced in 2019.

The body has been in turmoil since November when, in the wake of the global #MeToo campaign, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published the testimonies of 18 women claiming to have been raped, sexually assaulted or harassed by Jean-Claude Arnault, an influential figure on the Swedish culture scene.

Arnault, the French husband of Academy member and poet Katarina Frostenson, has denied the allegations.

The revelations have sowed deep discord among the Academy’s 18 members about how to handle the matter, and in recent weeks, six of them have resigned, including permanent secretary Sara Danius.

“The active members of the Swedish Academy are of course fully aware that the present crisis of confidence places high demands on a long-term and robust work for change,” Olsson said. 

Seen as bearers of high culture, the Academy, founded in 1786, is traditionally known for its integrity and discretion, with its meetings and decisions shrouded in secrecy. 

But the row has turned into a titillating public spectacle, with Academy members dealing ugly blows to each other in the media.

Member Horace Engdahl, for example, called Danius “the worst” permanent secretary in the Academy’s history.

– ‘Wise decision’ –

The last time the institution delayed a prize announcement was in 1949, when William Faulkner received the prize a year later, when Bertrand Russell was also honoured.

The same scenario, in which two laureates are announced in one year, has also occurred on four other occasions. 

“I think it’s wise, this is the best decision they could make. They’ll have a chance to restore (the Academy) this year and fill the empty seats, and come back with a strong Academy that can award the prize,” Dagens Nyheter’s literature critic Maria Schottenius told AFP.

Several Academy members had recently suggested the 2018 prize could be postponed because of the crisis, which has dragged the body’s reputation — and that of the Nobel Literature Prize — through the mud.

“This is a disaster for the Swedish Academy’s reputation… (that) they didn’t manage to handle this better,” Jens Liljestrand of the Expressen newspaper told TT news agency. 

Technically, Academy members have been appointed for life and have not been able to resign, though they could leave their chairs “empty” by not participating in meetings and decisions. 

However, the Academy is currently down to 10 active members while its statutes stipulate that 12 are needed to elect new members.

In order to ensure the venerable body’s survival, the Academy’s patron, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, announced Wednesday he had changed the statutes, making it possible for members to resign and be replaced.

– Conflicts of interest –

After the women spoke out in the media, the Academy cut all ties with Arnault’s cultural centre Forum in Stockholm, which it had subsidised for years and which was a key meeting point for the country’s cultural elite.

The centre, owned by Arnault and Frostenson, showcased exhibitions, readings and performances by both prominent cultural figures, including Nobel literature laureates, as well as hopefuls. It is now closed. 

A report commissioned by the Academy revealed conflicts of interest, as well as the fact that Academy members had leaked Nobel winners’ names. 

But the 18 members could not agree on what measures to take, with one camp defending Frostenson and the Academy’s old guard, and another camp supporting Danius’ bid to carry out reforms.

Prosecutors announced in mid-March they had dropped parts of their investigation against Arnault — concerning allegations of rape and assault between 2013 and 2015 — due to lack of evidence. The rest of the investigation is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Economic Crimes Bureau last week said it was investigating a case linked to the Academy, likely linked to the subsidies paid to Arnault.

The scandal comes on the heels of heavy criticism the Academy received in some circles for awarding the 2016 prize to US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. 

In 2017, it honoured British author Kazuo Ishiguro. 

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