In May, the Swedish Academy, the group responsible for choosing the Nobel Prize in literature, was involved in a scandal that rocked the literary world.
Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of former Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused by eighteen women of sexual assault and harassment. Arnault was in charge of a cultural organization called Forum, which received financial support from the Academy. According to reports that are under investigation, Arnault used cultural power gained from the Academy to commit misconduct against aspiring writers.
After the story was released to the public, Sara Danius, The Swedish Academy’s former permanent secretary and first female permanent secretary, was forced to step down from her position, then left the Academy altogether. In the following weeks, eight of the eighteen members, both men and women, left the Academy. As it stands, there will be no Nobel Prize awarded in literature this year.
While this scandal is another sad story of men using their authority to overpower women, it also reveals a need to modernize cultural organizations like the Swedish Academy. The Academy was much respected by the international community, therefore, a lot of work needs to be done before they will be trusted again. Bjorn Wiman, cultural editor at Dagens Nyheter, said, “With this scandal you cannot possibly say that this group of people has any kind of solid judgment.”
Some of Danius’s enemies within the Academy claim that the assault allegations are exaggerated and Danius was a weak leader who needed to be forced from the position of permanent secretary. They pointed to the importance of tradition in protecting the image of the Academy. However, others claim that she was ousted because she threatened the male-dominated tradition of the Swedish Academy. The first female permanent secretary introduced initiatives toward modernization that were not well-received by all.
Alexandra Pascalidou, a Greek-Swedish journalist, is a proponent for change in the literary community. She believes that the cancelation of the Nobel Prize this year punishes authors, so she is running her own prize, an inclusive prize. People all around the world are able to vote on the prize’s website for one of 46 candidates. On August 14, the polls will close and a panel of a literature professor, two librarians, and two literary editors will then choose a winner from the four finalists.
The New Academy, as they call themselves, seeks to be a more accessible space than the Swedish Academy. Instead of a panel of old guard academics, Pascalidou is involving people who interact with literature on many different levels. Although the hope is that the Swedish Academy will take on some of their inclusive measures, Pascalidou is not convinced. “I don’t think they will adopt what we’re doing as these are people who express very elitist views on librarians,” she said. “That’s very sad. Why do they think people in the Academy are the only ones that know about literature?”
Will the New Academy’s winner have a positive impact on the future of literature? Will the Swedish Academy become a more accessible, transparent organization? With the New Academy’s winner set to be announced on October 14, and the future of the Swedish Academy still unknown, we must wait to see how the literary community evolves. I leave with a parting call to action: vote. Go onto the New Academy’s website and involve yourself in the literary world. If the Swedish Academy will not give us room, we will make room.
-Colleen Risavy, Intern