Nobel Foundation urges Swedish Academy for concrete steps after scandal, says could strip literature prize

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Published 29.09.2018 14:09
Nobel Foundation CEO Lars Heikensten pose for a picture at the foundation's headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, September 28, 2018. (Reuters Photo)
Nobel Foundation CEO Lars Heikensten pose for a picture at the foundation's headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, September 28, 2018. (Reuters Photo)

In tatters after a #MeToo scandal, the Swedish Academy has postponed this year's Nobel Literature Prize, leaving an empty page for 2018 as it attempts to reform the venerable institution.

Created in 1786 by King Gustav III and modeled on its French elder, the Swedish Academy has selected the winner of the prestigious literary distinction since it was first awarded in 1901.

The "Holy Grail" of authors, poets, and playwrights, the Nobel has gone to some of the greatest writers of all time, from Albert Camus to Samuel Beckett and Ernest Hemingway.

But the list of recipients also includes U.S. rock icon Bob Dylan, the 2016 choice harshly criticized by some who lambasted the Academy for overlooking other popular and critically-acclaimed authors -- such as American novelist Philip Roth, who died in May this year without getting the nod.

After the Dylan controversy, the Academy attempted to smooth things over last year with an uncontroversial laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, a British author of Japanese origin whose nomination enjoyed broad consensus.

But just three weeks after that announcement, the institution again found itself in controversy, this time in the eye of the #MeToo hurricane.

Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault, married to an Academy member, and the head of an influential cultural club in Stockholm, was accused of rape and sexual assault.

An internal Academy probe also revealed conflicts of interest between him and the institution, which had funded his club for years.

Arnault ultimately faced trial on two counts of raping a woman in 2011. His verdict is due on Monday, and the prosecution has sought a three-year sentence.

A hemorrhaging Academy

The Academy has been deeply divided over how to deal with Arnault and on the reforms it needs to undertake.

Some of the 18 members, who are appointed for life, have refused to participate in the Academy's work over the row -- including its first female permanent secretary Sara Danius -- leaving it without a quorum.

And in the months since the scandal erupted, the usually-discreet members have exchanged ugly jibes in the media.

Paralyzed and ridiculed around the world, the scandal forced the Academy's hand: it announced in May that it would postpone by one year the 2018 Nobel Literature Prize, a first in 70 years.

The 2018 laureate will be announced at the same time as the 2019 prize.

"If things continue in this way, and if they don't manage to regain legitimacy, then we might be forced to take drastic steps," Lars Heikensten, director of the Nobel Foundation that finances the prizes, Heikensten told Reuters.

"One of those steps could be asking permission to have some other organization being responsible for the prize."

Heikensten said the Academy had taken its first positive step by agreeing on a reinterpretation of its bylaws to allow it to deal with issues including the need to hire several new members and remove others.

"They need to look at the composition of the Nobel committee, those who are most involved with the prize, so that the committee consists of people who are competent and have not been involved in a negative way with what has happened," he said.

He expressed reservations when asked if enough had been done since the scandal.

"I think (agreeing on the bylaws) was a step in the right direction, but they still have several steps to take. So things don't look that good," Heikensten said.

In addition to members resigning, several others, including Arnault's wife, are not taking part in the Academy's work as a consequence of the row.

Heikensten said he believed it would be good if more members of the Academy resigned, but he declined to elaborate.

In a normal year, the Academy would be set to begin work to select the 2019 prize winner, however this year's troubles have put that process on ice.

Heikensten said that if the Academy could not resolve its problems soon, it would not be allowed to hand out the 2019 literature prize.

"We certainly hope that the Swedish Academy will be able to give out the (literature) prize in 2019 and we're working as hard as we can on that," he said.

"But if things are not dealt with properly reasonably soon... most likely, in that case, there will be a postponement again but that would be very unfortunate."

'Ridiculous' and 'chauvinist'

With the Academy in shambles and no literature prize to look forward to this year, a group of Swedish cultural figures decided to create their own award pending the Nobel's return next year.

The "New Academy Prize in Literature" was devised as a protest to denounce "bias, arrogance and sexism", and "remind people that literature and culture at large should promote democracy, transparency, empathy and respect, without privilege," according to the founders who include authors, artists and journalists.

It will be announced on October 12.

The Swedish Academy, a hermetic circle whose deliberations in Stockholm's cobblestoned Old Town are kept secret for 50 years, is seen as out-of-touch with reality and modern times.

"Lifetime membership and an ageing population also create a difficult situation, with some members still active at an age where they no longer have the capacity to work professionally, or understand how the Academy is perceived by the public," Madelaine Levy, literary critic at daily Svenska Dagbladet, told AFP.

The public has lost confidence in the body, perceiving it as "ridiculous" and "chauvinist", she said.

"The Academy needs reform, namely more transparency and stricter conflict of interest regulations."

Publishers meanwhile fear the Academy's crisis is far from over.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed but as things are now I would say I am uncertain" there will be a Nobel Literature Prize in 2019, Hakan Bravinger, an editor at Sweden's second-biggest publishing house Norstedts, told AFP.

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