© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

No Nobel In Literature This Year Following A Sexual Assault Scandal


This week, leading researchers in medicine, physics and chemistry have been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize. And usually today we'd be telling you about the winner in literature. Except there isn't one. Not this year. The Academy is taking a year off after it was engulfed in a scandal involving sexual abuse by the husband of one of the academy members. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: An expose published late last year by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter told the story of 18 women who said they were sexually harassed or assaulted by a French arts promoter named Jean-Claude Arnault. He's married to poet Katarina Frostenson and is friends with Horace Engdahl, two members of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature. Earlier this week, Arnault was sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of raping a woman in 2011.

ANDREW BROWN: Everybody sort of knew, but nobody wanted to admit that they knew what he was up to.

LIMBONG: Andrew Brown is a writer for the London newspaper The Guardian and author of the book, "Fishing In Utopia: Sweden And The Future That Disappeared." He's been following this story for a while. Brown says, on top of the sexual abuse, there's the matter of a club called Forum which Arnault and his wife, Frostenson, owned and which also got some money from the Academy.

BROWN: So there was an element of possible financial corruption there because they were voting on subsidies to themselves.

LIMBONG: On top of that, there were reports of Frostenson leaking names of winners to Arnault, allowing him to win some gambling money. When all of this came to light, Frostenson and Engdahl refused to step down. So three members of the Academy left in protest, and permanent secretary Sara Danius was nudged out. Here she is talking to a press gaggle after she stepped down last April.


SARA DANIUS: It's already affected the Nobel Prize quite severely, and that is a rather big problem.

LIMBONG: Because being a member of the Swedish Academy is a lifetime appointment - you can't leave. The most you can do is not participate. The Swedish king can intervene. It's kind of a mess of a situation that Brown says leaves a deserved black mark on the reputation of the Swedish Academy, which declined to comment for this story.

ALOK YADAV: I think it certainly damages the ethos of the Academy, and it's an open question, you know, how well it'll recover.

LIMBONG: Alok Yadav is a professor of English at George Mason University who's taught a class on Nobel prize-winning novels. He thinks the Academy might be better served with a more international jury.

YADAV: And as with things like the Supreme Court and so on, there's problems with lifetime appointments in general.

LIMBONG: And he points out that there are other literary awards. In fact, one has sprung up to take the place of this year's absent Nobel Prize in literature.

ANN PALSSON: We decided that the criteria would be very democratic.

LIMBONG: Ann Palsson is an independent publisher and book editor. She is also the president of the jury for The New Academy. She says its members reached out to Swedish librarians to create a long list, got reader input to prune that list down, and they'll announce a winner next Friday who will get an award, a banquet - the same types of thing a Nobel winner would get, but not as much money. Once that's done, The New Academy will dissolve.

PALSSON: Because we all love the Nobel prize. It is the Swedish Academy that isn't coping very well with this Nobel Prize.

LIMBONG: For his part, journalist and author Andrew Brown thinks the Swedish Royal Court may just take the power to award the literature prize away from this current Swedish Academy.

BROWN: And leave the Swedish Academy as simply a bunch of very highly paid dictionary compilers.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.