Nobel prize in literature may be cancelled in 2018 amid sexual abuse scandal

Swedish Academy members debate holding back prize for first time since the second world war    in Malmö

The Swedish Academy offices in Stockholm, where members of the committee are debating the 2018 Nobel prize in literature.
 The Swedish Academy offices in Stockholm, where members of the committee are debating the 2018 Nobel prize in literature. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

The Swedish Academy is discussing whether to cancel the 2018 Nobel prize in literature, following a string of sexual assault allegations. A decision is expected on 3 May.

At their weekly meeting on 26 April, the 11 remaining members of the committee debated the question. “The Swedish Academy yesterday discussed the Nobel prize and came to no decision,” Per Wästberg, who heads the four-person panel that awards the prize, told the Guardian following the meeting.

“After our next Thursday meeting there will most probably be a statement on whether we will award a prize this year or reserve it for next year, in which case two prizes for literature will be announced in October 2019.”

Wästberg, a poet, novelist and former editor of the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, said the academy had in recent weeks been engaged in “a fruitful dialogue” with the Nobel Foundation, which oversees the six prizes established by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

The institution, founded by King Gustav III in 1786 to further the “purity, strength and sublimity of the Swedish language”, was shaken in November when the French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault was accused of sexual assault or harassment by 18 women. Arnault is married to academy member Katarina Frostenson.

The crisis deepened at the start of this month when three members vacated their seats in protest at a vote not to expel Frostenson, despite a report commissioned from a law firm accusing Arnault of leaking in advance the names of seven past Nobel winners.

The academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, left a week later, as did Frostenson.

The Swedish Academy’s former permanent secretary Sara Danius, left, with academy member Sara Stridsberg outside the institutions offices on 12 April,
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 The Swedish Academy’s former permanent secretary Sara Danius, left, with academy member Sara Stridsberg outside the institutions offices on 12 April. Photograph: Jonas Ekstromer/AFP/Getty Images

Mattias Berg, a reporter with Swedish Radio’s Kulturnytt programme, which on 25 April revealed the discussions, said the academy member pushing for a postponement was “really disturbed about the chaos within the academy” and thought it “didn’t really deserve the honour of giving the Nobel prize this year”.

Directly after the academy’s latest meeting, Horace Engdahl, who was the institution’s permanent secretary from 1999 to 2009, downplayed the threat of a postponement.

“I think the question will turn out to be less difficult than you imagine right now,” he told reporters gathered outside Börshuset, the former stock exchange building in the centre of Stockholm’s historic Gamla Stan, where the Academy meets.

Wästberg said the Nobel committee he chairs would continue as normal regardless of the decision.

“The Nobel committee of four persons … is fully functioning, working according to our usual schedule,” he said. “We and the other members of the academy will spend summer reading and studying in depth the five candidates on the shortlist, regardless of an announcement this autumn or next.”

The Swedish Academy has failed to award the Nobel prize in literature only seven times since the prize was established in 1901: in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940 and 1941-43. The award has, however, been postponed by a year six times, each time because the committee decided that none of that year’s nominations met the criteria outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel.

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