Nobel Prize for Literature: What the Academy's Scandal Teaches

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(Bloomberg) -- To anyone who hasn’t followed the sexual harassment and assault scandal involving French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, the cancellation of the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature in the wake of that scandal could seem like the mother of non sequiturs. But it isn't: It’s just a stage in the self-destruction of an institution that had the power to confer greatness on a living writer but was also a group of fallible people blessed with oversized powers.

The Nobel laureates in literature are selected by the Swedish Academy, an 18-member body of humanities luminaries established by King Gustaf III in 1786. When a member dies, his or her successor is elected by the remaining 17. Apart from the Nobel Prize, this exclusive club distributes some $3 million a year in grants and stipends.

Katarina Frostenson, recognized as one of the leading Swedish poets, has occupied Chair 18 since 1992. Arnault is her husband. Since the late 1980s, they owned a cultural club in Stockholm, called Forum, which Arnault ran. Being invited to perform a reading or a concert there has long meant that, in Sweden’s intellectual circles, you’ve arrived. The Academy subsidized Forum, until the daily Dagens Nyheter broke the story last year of 18 women’s accusations against Arnault. Some of the women, who were part of the Swedish cultural scene, said he promised to advance their careers or threatened to hinder them. Then, in a stunner for the Swedish public, reports followed that Arnault groped Swedish Crown Princess Victoria at an Academy event in 2006.

Accusations against Arnault have surfaced, in a quieter way, since the 1990s. There was also talk that he’d let slip the names of some Nobel Prize winners ahead of time. Frostenson has always rejected the allegations and defended him. To some members of the Academy, that was enough of a reason to put her expulsion to the vote as the latest scandal developed. The majority, however, opposed it, arguing Frostenson shouldn’t be victimized for anything her husband may have done (he denies any and all illegal behavior; an investigation continues). Those who felt the poet should be held responsible for defending her husband announced they’d stop taking part in the Academy’s activities (it’s impossible to resign an Academy chair; the current Swedish king, Karl XVI Gustaf, has promised to work with the members to reform the 232-year-old statute to create that opportunity).

Soon, the number of effectively striking members swelled to six; Frostenson was one of them, feeling her presence was damaging to the academy. Though technically the 12 remaining members constitute a quorum and a Nobel prize winner could be chosen, they decided  to put that off until next year, when two prizes will be distributed. The idea is, in the meantime, to “recover public confidence” in the Academy.

I’ll leave it to social justice warriors to debate whether Frostenson was guilty of anything or whether the Academy made a mistake in funding Forum, which also received public funds from other sources. It’s impossible to expect sinlessness or even sound judgment from a small group of people accountable to no one but themselves — not even to the king. On the contrary, what should be expected from such a group is the particular mixture of backbiting and mutual protection that characterizes small, closed bodies with money and recognition to give away at their sole discretion.

It’s also natural for such a group to start falling apart after its internal contradictions are aired in public: Individual reputations become more important than the group’s collective one. To be fair to them, the Academy members do have stellar, well-deserved reputations in their fields. Frostenson’s poetry is known for deft wordplay and probably loses much in translation, but even small samples display a formidable talent; whatever her husband may have done, she has a certain right to judge others’ work.

But the individual members’ background and literary taste matter little in the grand scheme of things. A closed club with a lifetime membership has been shaping the world’s literary pantheon since 1901. No wonder the decisions have been idiosyncratic.

The choices have oscillated between the obscure and the hyper-provocative. The last 10 years’ winners have included Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, whose little-known work probably won’t rock your world even if you track it down, and Bob Dylan, whose songs have shaped many people but who wondered if they were “literature” even in his Nobel lecture. The list of great writers who have been passed over is long; the list of recipients whom most readers would recognize as worthy — the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Ernest Hemingway — is much shorter than the list of names that would elicit a shrug from many enthusiastic readers. Some rich national literatures — including the Russian and Chinese ones — are cursed by underrepresentation and strange picks.

Watching the scandal now, who could say it’s a complete surprise?

The Nobel Foundation, which provides the money for the prizes, has pointed out that “the crisis at the Swedish Academy has adversely affected the Nobel Prize” and called on Academy members to create a new organizational structure “characterized by greater openness towards the outside world.” If that’s what the Foundation really wants, why leave the literary prize with the Academy at all? After all, the Nobel Prize brand is a global one, and Alfred Nobel, though born in Sweden, spoke five languages and also lived in France, Russia and Italy without holding permanent residence anywhere after the age of nine.

The idea of having permanent institutions in Scandinavia award prizes works to some extent in the sciences, where real achievement is more difficult to discard. In an area like literature, where the recognition of greatness lies ultimately with a wide, multilingual body of discerning readers, it might be a better idea to set up temporary juries capable of representing that body, the way, say, the directors of the Cannes Film Festival do every year. There would still be some surprising decisions, but at least this solution would remove the question of why 18 Swedes who have known each other and worked together for decades should be the ultimate arbiters of global literature.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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