Though it awards the Nobel Prize in Literature — one of the richest, most prominent literary honours in the world — the Swedish Academy is typically a secretive group, one that offers up little detail on how it does its work.
That process has been upended this year, culminating in the academy announcing Friday that the prize will not be handed out this year, on the grounds that the academy is in no shape to pick a winner amid an ongoing scandal involving a string of sex abuse allegations and financial conflicts of interest.
The decision was made at a weekly meeting in Stockholm on Thursday, it was revealed, and it was decided that two winners will be announced in 2019, with one recipient recognized for this year’s eligibility period.
“We find it necessary to commit time to recovering public confidence in the academy before the next laureate can be announced,” Anders Olsson, the academy’s permanent secretary, said in a statement.
The academy was acting “out of respect for previous and future literature laureates, the Nobel Foundation and the general public.”
Olsson also said “work on the selection of a laureate is at an advanced stage and will continue as usual in the months ahead, but the academy needs time to regain its full complement.”
[The Swedish Academy’s] extensive reform efforts and its future organizational structure must be characterized by greater openness toward the outside world.– Carl-Henrik Heldin, chair, Nobel Foundation Board
It will be the first time since just after the Second World War that the prestigious award is not being handed out. The last time an award was postponed until the following year was 1949, when the committee decided that no nominees met the outlined criteria. The prize was reserved until 1950, and William Faulkner was declared winner for the previous year.
The Nobel Foundation welcomed the decision by the academy to work on “restoring its credibility as a prize-awarding institution,” and urged that the group be more open about itself and the reforms it plans to undertake.
“We also assume that all members of the academy realize that both its extensive reform efforts and its future organizational structure must be characterized by greater openness toward the outside world,” Carl-Henrik Heldin, chair of the Nobel Foundation Board, said in a separate statement on Friday.
The postponement for the literature honour will have no effect on the remaining 2018 Nobel Prizes.
Here’s a look at how it got to this point:
Who is in the Swedish Academy?
Established in 1786, the cultural body comprises Swedish authors, linguists, historians and literary scholars tasked with promoting and celebrating the Swedish language. As part of its mandate, it also administers a host of literary awards, including picking winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (as requested by Alfred Nobel in his will).
Traditionally, the group includes 18 members selected through secret ballot who are named for life.
When a member — for whatever reason — steps away from academy duties, that seat has historically remained vacant until the individual’s death. The group’s regulations don’t include a provision for members to quit, but that’s something Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf (the academy’s formal patron) said he plans to change because of the current crisis.
Academy rules stipulate that a quorum of 12 active members is required for academy votes to occur.
When did this scandal start?
In November 2017, a Swedish daily reported multiple allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Jean-Claude Arnault, a prominent cultural figure married to poet and academy member Katarina Frostenson. Arnault denied the allegations.
Immediately after the report in Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, the academy’s head — permanent secretary Sara Danius — announced the group was severing ties with Arnault as well as the high-profile literary club he runs with his wife (and which has also received funding from the academy). The academy also enlisted a law firm to investigate the academy’s association with Arnault.
The investigation, released to the public this spring, alleged that both academy members and relatives of members had experienced “unwanted intimacy” from Arnault. The probe also claimed he had leaked the names of Nobel literature laureates on multiple occasions and cited a conflict of interest in the academy’s funding of Arnault. Through an attorney, Arnault denied the allegations.
In early April, three male academy members withdrew in protest after the group voted not to sideline Frostenson.
Frostenson, who hasn’t publicly been accused of wrongdoing, stepped aside the following week.
On the same day, Danius, the first-ever female head of the academy, also departed the group. “It was the will of the academy that I should leave my role,” she told reporters.
Novelist Sara Stridsberg, who was a vocal supporter of Danius, subsequently became the sixth member to withdraw in a month.
Where is this playing out?
The scandal has rocked Sweden, which on April 19 saw protests in multiple cities, including in Stockholm where the academy has its headquarters.
Some have called for the remaining academy members to step down, to be replaced by a new contingent.
Many have voiced support for Danius and are questioning if she was ousted in order to take the blame for the academy’s dealings with Arnault.
Because of the international status of the Nobel Prize, the turmoil of the secretive group has piqued interest worldwide, with a wave of people wearing bow blouses in solidarity with Danius (in person and on social media).
What’s at stake?
The Nobel Prize for literature is among the world’s most prominent, universally accepted and lucrative cultural honours (winners receive the equivalent of about $1.3 million Cdn).
The turmoil at the Swedish Academy has shone a harsh light on the venerable institution and exposed serious in-fighting within its membership. Sweden’s king, its politicians and the Nobel Foundation board have expressed concern that the global reputation of the academy is being tarnished.
The scandal has also revealed that the group is made up of mostly men. In more than 230 years, there have been just nine female members in the academy’s existence; five of those have stepped down since 1989.
Since its inaugural edition in 1901, the awarding of the literature prize has been outright cancelled seven times, largely during the First and Second World Wars.
The award has been postponed (and typically presented the following year) on seven prior occasions.