Nobel Prize in Literature could be withheld for another year

It looks like UEA alumnus and soon-to-be-Sir Kazuo Ishiguro will be the last recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature for some time. The Swedish Academy usually awards the prize annually to an individual who produces “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as articulated by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will.

However, it was announced on May 4 that the prize would not be handed out in 2018 due to accusations of sexual assault and breaches of trust within the Academy itself. This will be the first time since 1949 that the prize has been withheld. The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786 and consists of 18 lifetime members that award annual prizes and stipends within the field of language and culture. The institution is somewhat infamous for its secrecy and patriarchal structure, the latter of which is finally beginning to unravel.

It was in November of last year that the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published the testimonies of 18 women who accused the Swedish-French director and photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of rape, sexual assault and harassment. On June 12, Swedish prosecutors charged Arnault with two counts of rape in 2011. He denies all allegations. Arnault has close ties to the Swedish Academy; in addition to being married to longstanding member Katarina Frostenson, the Academy previously financed the cultural institution Forum, for which Arnault is artistic director. The scandal has led many to question whether the Academy knew of and ignored the accusations against Arnault; while initially claiming to have been unaware of it, representatives of the institution later admitted to having been alerted about Arnault’s behaviour as far back as in 1996.

The poor way in which the Academy handled these accusations made several members resign in protest, among them Frostenson and spokesperson Sara Danius, leaving the institution with only 10 members. It was therefore decided that the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature would be postponed “in view of the currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence”, according to The Guardian. The Swedish Academy’s secretary and current spokesperson Anders Olsson said at the beginning of May that the 2018-prize would be awarded in 2019. According to the Financial Times, however, executive director of the Nobel Foundation Lars Heikensten is willing to withhold next year’s prize money if the Academy has not regained confidence and “made sufficient changes to its organisation” by then. Now, more than 100 Swedish cultural figures have founded the New Academy, which will hand out its own award for literature this autumn in the place of the Nobel Prize. The New Academy’s jury consists exclusively of women and will dissolve after awarding the prize in December, around the time when the Nobel Prizes are usually handed out.

The #MeToo movement has revealed staggering cases of systematic harassment and elaborate cover-ups within almost every profession and industry there is, and the literary world is no exception. Several high-profile male writers have been accused of harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the last year, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Díaz, National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie, and bestselling YA-author Jay Asher. Writing for Vox, Alexia Underwood describes this process as “long overdue for an industry in which women are the overwhelming majority of workers but men are often the coddled “geniuses” with power.” Until very recently, artistic flair seemed to redeem otherwise inexcusable behaviour, and it will, therefore, be interesting to see how the #MeToo movement progresses within the literary world.

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October 2021
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