For the first time since the middle of World War II, the Nobel Foundation has decided to postpone awarding this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature following a sexual misconduct scandal centered around the French husband of one of the academy’s 18 members.
While the scandal might be unfamiliar to many readers in the US, it has roiled Swedish society, resulting in eight of the 18 members of the Nobel Academy resigning (even though their membership is technically a lifetime appointment without a provision for resignation) following a failed attempt to expel Katarina Frostenson, a member whose husband, French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, has been accused of sexual misconduct by 18 women, including Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria, whom he’s accused of touching inappropriately, according to CNN.
Compounding the embarrassment for the academy, the press published a letter that had allegedly been sent to the academy in 1996 warning it of Arnault’s behavior. Both Arnault and Frostenson had founded cultural forums in Sweden that had been receiving money from the Swedish Academy. The subsequent investigation has caused an uproar as the #MeToo movement comes to Sweden.
The lawyers also discovered that the academy had received a letter in 1996 outlining alleged sexual assault at Arnault’s cultural forum, indicating that November was not the first time that at least some members of the academy were aware that the photographer’s name had been connected with misconduct.
It also confirmed that the academy had broken its own rules relating to conflicts of interest by providing funding to the cultural forum run by Arnault and Frostenson. In a statement in April, the Swedish Academy said it “deeply regrets that the letter was shelved and no measures taken to investigate the charges.”
The scandal has exposed deep divisions within the academy’s membership and severely damaged its reputation, both in Sweden — a country often considered a model for gender equality and abroad. Alexandra Pascalidou, a Swedish-Greek journalist and author of a book about the #MeToo movement in Sweden, told CNN earlier this week that the scandal had exposed the institution as “too stale and old-fashioned to be Sweden 2018.”
In a statement, the Nobel Foundation, which oversees all the Nobel prizes, acknowledged that the crisis had tarnished its reputation and that delaying the prize “underscores the seriousness of the situation.”
The Nobel Foundation, which oversees all the Nobel prizes, acknowledged the crisis had tarnished the wider organization and welcomed the Swedish Academy’s announcement. “The crisis in the Swedish Academy has adversely affected the Nobel Prize. Their decision underscores the seriousness of the situation and will help safeguard the long-term reputation of the Nobel Prize. None of this impacts the awarding of the 2018 Nobel Prizes in other prize categories,” it said in a statement.
Not everybody is upset that the prize is being postponed – in fact, some believe it should be scrapped altogether, particularly after it was awarded to US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan last year, a decision that befuddled literary critics.
Writing in the New York Times Opinion Section, Tim Parks questioned the purpose of the prize, arguing that literature isn’t a competition, and that it makes little sense to pit literary works from disparate cultures against one another.
Literature is not tennis or football, where international competition makes sense. It is intimately tied to the language and culture from which it emerges. Literary style distinguishes itself by its distance from the other styles that surround it, implying a community of readers with a shared knowledge of other literary works, of standard language usage and cultural context. What sense does it make for a group from one culture — be it Swedish, American, Nigerian or Japanese — to seek to compare a Bolivian poet with a Korean novelist, an American singer-songwriter with a Russian playwright, and so on? Why would we even want them to do that?
Still, the Nobel Prize is perhaps the most prestigious literary award on the planet. Seeing it scrapped would be an epoch-defining moment in world literature. But of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature is hardly the only Nobel that’s been tainted by scandal in recent years. Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during his first term with nothing in terms of actual accomplishments on his resume. And recently, Myanmar politician and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the peace prize in 1991, has been accused of turning a blind eye as Burmese soldiers slaughtered members of a minority group in what is widely considered a genocide.