Two Nobel Prizes in Literature will be awarded this year, the Nobel Foundation has said. There was no Literature Nobel in 2018 after the Nobel Foundation stopped the Swedish Academy, the body that chooses the winner, from awarding the Prize. The Foundation stepped in after the Swedish Academy was hit by allegations of sexual abuse, financial wrongdoing, corruption, and a cover-up.
Allegations of wrongdoing
During the #MeToo campaign in 2017, 18 women accused French-Swedish photographer and one of Sweden’s leading cultural personalities, Jean-Claude Arnault, of sexually harassing them over a period of more than 20 years. Arnault is married to the influential Swedish poet and writer Katarina Frostenson, who was then a long-time member of the Swedish Academy.
Arnault and Frostenson ran a club in Stockholm that periodically showcased cultural events, including exhibitions, readings, and performances. Their organisation and cultural venue had close ties with the Academy and received large payments from it. Arnault was accused of abusing the influence he derived from the Academy and his wife’s position in it to assault his female victims.
Arnault was also accused of leaking the names of several winners of the Literature Nobel, including Bob Dylan (2016) and Harold Pinter (2005).
Fallout of the allegations
The scandal triggered outrage and recrimination within the Academy, and its members exchanged insults in the Swedish media. Ultimately, six of the 18 members of the Academy — who are elected for life by their peers and refer to themselves loftily as The Eighteen — withdrew from any part in its deliberations, and another two members were forced to resign. Among them were the permanent secretary, Sara Danius, and Frostenson, who argued for a time that she could not be punished for the alleged misconduct of her husband. With one member having been inactive for nearly 30 years, and another having resigned in 2015, the Academy was reduced to a situation where it did not even have the minimum 12 members needed to vote in new members.
Arnault was convicted of rape last year and sentenced to at least two years in prison. Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, patron of the Academy, involved himself publicly in the demands for change. Lars Heikensten, the head of the Nobel Foundation, warned the Academy that it could be stripped of its role in awarding the Prize. It was not only the biggest crisis faced by the Academy in decades, it also raised questions on the fundamental values on which it claimed to function. In May 2018, the Academy decided to not announce the Literature Prize for that year.
Earlier Nobel cancellations
2018 was not the first year in which the Nobel Prize for Literature was not awarded. (The Nobel Prize organisation officially said the Prize had been “postponed”.) From 1901, when the Literature Nobel was first awarded (to the French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme), to 2017 (when the British novelist of Japanese origin Kazuo Ishiguro won), 110 Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded; the Prize was not awarded on seven occasions: in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943.
Other Nobels too, have not been awarded on occasion. During World Wars I and II, fewer Nobel Prizes were awarded. Also, the website of Nobel Prize quotes the statutes of the Nobel Foundation: “If none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph, the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation’s restricted funds.”