Nobel Prize crisis: flurry of withdrawals rocking Swedish Academy's showpiece literature award

Allegations of sexual harassment have shaken the organisation that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature

Sara Danius’s withdrawal is the first by a permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in more than 230 years
Sara Danius’s withdrawal is the first by a permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in more than 230 years

The Swedish Academy is in trouble. The body, which bestows the annual Nobel Prize in Literature, has been hit by the withdrawal of a number of its members after a row over allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. The crisis came to a head after the decision of the permanent secretary, Sara Danius, to step down on 12 April, prompting King Carl XVI Gustaf to intervene, promising reforms to enable to academy to continue.

The academy’s rules don’t allow for members to resign, so disenchanted members withdraw from active participation. Danius’s withdrawal is the first by a permanent secretary in more than 230 years. It means there are only 11 active members of the academy and the rules require that new members must be elected by 12 members.

The Swedish Academy was established in 1786 to promote the Swedish language by setting standards and developing poetry and other forms of linguistic expression. For a century and more, this was where writers rubbed shoulders with high-ranking officials and aristocrats. But for the past century, the 18 members of the academy have tended to be well-known writers and academics – a fine family name is no longer enough for entrance.

But apart from this small modernisation in the interests of promoting equality, the Swedish Academy has remained surprisingly stable. There have been scandals and expulsions, most notably that of founding member, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, a director of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Theatre in Stockholm, who was excluded twice – both times for political reasons when Armfelt was forced to flee the country in fear of his life. Another prominent exclusion was that of politician and aristocrat Count Henning Hamilton who resigned after financial wrongdoing.

But overall the academy has been remarkably stable and, when Alfred Nobel’s will stipulated in 1895 that the Nobel Prize in Literature should be decided upon by “the academy in Stockholm”, the organisation received an enormous boost in prestige as well as a financial boost that has allowed it to fund the Nobel Library.

Scandal erupts

The current crisis actually has its roots in a row as far back as 1989 when members Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten left their chairs after a majority of the academy voted against a proposition to submit an appeal to the Swedish government to engage against the fatwa issued by Iran against Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. In 2015, another member, Lotta Lotass, left her chair for personal reasons.

After Gyllensten’s death and replacement by Kristina Lugn, this meant that only 16 of the 18 members of the academy were now actively involved in its work. These included five women including Danius the permanent secretary and the poet Katarina Frostenson, whose husband Jean-Claude Arnault is reported to have been the subject of numerous complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. These go back as far as 1996 when there is evidence that a young artist called Anna-Karin Bylund contacted the then permanent secretary Sture Allen (confusingly, the permanent secretary actually holds the office for a limited term that varies) with allegations of sexual harassment against Arnault. No action was taken at the time.

Katarina Frostenson’s husband is reported to have been the subject of numerous sexual harassment complaints

Towards the end of 2017, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, 18 women came forward in the Swedish press with further allegations against Arnault, who is not only married to an academy member but runs the Forum, a club for artists in Stockholm that is subsidised by the academy.

There were also allegations going around that the names of several winners had been leaked in the past, although there is said to be no record of odd betting patterns in Sweden. In the UK, Ladbrokes is reported to have suspended betting on one occasion after large amounts of money were placed on the eventual winner. Arnault’s lawyer Bjorn Hurtig told Reuters that his client denied all the allegations, including that of being the source of leaks.

Turmoil

According to reports of the affair, moves to expel Frostenson were frustrated by the academy’s dominant conservative male faction, led by Allen and literary scholar Horace Engdahl (also a former permanent secretary), which voted against the measure on the grounds that it would be unfair to punish Frostenson for the perceived crimes of her husband. Three members: novelist Klas Ostergren, literary scholar Kjell Espmark and historian Peter Englund duly resigned and Danius stood down as permanent secretary and withdrew from active participation, as did Frostenson.

The affair would not have attracted so much international interest but for the Swedish Academy’s role in selecting the recipients of the Nobel Prize. And now, thanks to all the resignations, the existence of the academy itself has been put in jeopardy. All eyes are now on the king and his possible reforms to reach some kind of solution that can secure the future of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Thomas Kaiserfeld is a professor at the division of history of ideas and sciences at Lund University. This article was first published in The Conversation (theconversation.com)

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