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The Nobel Literature Prize Sexual Assault Scandal, Explained

While it right now is the time of the year when the Nobel prize winners are announced, it seems to be quiet about one particular prize: the literature one. For the first time in almost 70 years, there won’t be any Nobel literature laureate; instead, two people will be awarded the prize in 2019 instead of one. It’s all due to a crisis within the academy that awards the prize, caused by a massive corruption and sexual assault scandal. As a Swede, I can without a doubt say that this has been one of the largest, ongoing news stories in Sweden in 2018. The scandal is a rather complicated one to navigate with many twists and turns, so here is a brief summary of how it all went down.

The scandal

The Nobel Prize winner in literature is elected by what is called the Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), a two hundred-years-old royal academy composed of 18 members whose positions are for life. In November 2017, when the #MeToo movement was at its peak in Sweden, 18 women came forward in an article and accused Jean-Claude Arnault, a leading cultural figure with strong ties to the Swedish Academy, of sexual assault. The academy has not only helped to fund his culture club for eight years: he is also married to one of the academy members, Katarina Frostensson, and has strong connections to other members. Eight months after the article, on October 1, Jean-Claude Arnault was officially convicted of rape of one woman and sentenced to two years in prison.

Beyond the sexual assault scandal, an investigation also found that he had revealed the laureates of the Nobel Literature prize in advance seven times. The academy has also been criticized of nepotism and corruption due to conflicts of interests since donations were made to his club despite the fact that his wife (who happens to own half of it) and his friends sit in the academy. The scandal became the foundation of a crisis that has come to shake the academy to its core.

Chaos in the academy

After the sexual assault allegations last year, the permanent secretary of the academy, Sara Danius, spoke out against the accusations where she said, among other things, that Jean-Claude Arnault had allegedly assaulted members of the academy, as well as daughters and wives of members. After months of developments, multiple members chose to resign in protest of how the scandal had been treated by other members of the academy. The people who resigned were upset that members had protected and defended Jean-Claude Arnault and his wife Katarina Frostensson, especially since several of them are close friends with him.

In April, several members forced Sara Danius to leave her post as the permanent secretary (the highest position in the academy). Due to the loss of members, the academy can no longer vote on who receives the Nobel literature prize since it according to its bylaws requires 12 active members to make a decision. The wife of Jean-Claude Arnault remains as a member, as well as Horace Engdahl, the leading opponent to Sara Danius and a strong defender of Jean-Claude Arnault.

A storm of backlash

A manifestation in Stockholm aimed to protest the Swedish Academy and show support for Sara Danius.

Sara Danius has received a wave a support in Sweden after she resigned, triggering both manifestations and a hashtag. The Swedish Academy has lost public trust and has been widely criticized for being corrupt and keeping a culture of silence. Some have even questioned if isn’t time for another institution to elect the Nobel laureates. A public letter signed by 227 prominent academics within literature stated:

“Leading forces has, for more than twenty years time, neglected sexual assault accusations. They have, in a nonchalant manner, dismissed the testimonies of those women who have recounted what they’ve been exposed to, and have cultivated a culture of silence that shows all signs of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and cronyism.”

Note: The statement is translated by me from the letter that originally is in Swedish.

Whether the academy will be able to recover from the crisis or if the jury will end up being replaced, this scandal is certainly a historical one. It is, perhaps, an alarming peak into the attitudes and systems that take place behind closed doors in the world of high culture.

Picture: Mastad via Wikipedia

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