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Last Year’s Nobel Prize in Literature Was Canceled Over Scandal and Conflict. Can 2019’s Award Mark a Comeback?

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This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature marks a first in the award’s 118-year history. On Thursday, there won’t just be one award announced, but two simultaneously for different years: one for 2018 and the other for 2019. Each winner will receive over $910,000 in prize money and the international acclaim accompanying recognition as a Nobel Laureate.

With winners in previous years including Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, and Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, the prize is seen as a celebration of an individual’s contribution to world literature. The unusual move to award two Prizes at once comes after sexual assault allegations and significant resignations in 2017 rocked the Swedish Academy, the institution responsible for administering the Nobel Prize, leading to the cancellation of 2018’s Prize announcement. As the Academy prepares to announce the 2018 and 2019 Laureates, can it rebuild trust in what the prize stands for?

The #MeToo movement blazed through the U.S. entertainment industry in October 2017, before becoming a global rallying cry for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Countless universities, organizations, and companies faced reckonings over sexual assault and how they should handle allegations. The Swedish Academy, a 233-year-old cultural institution which has been responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature since its inception in 1901, was no exception. (The Academy is one of Sweden’s Royal Academies, with 18 members elected for life.)

In November 2017, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published allegations from 18 women accusing French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual assault. Arnault and his wife, author and Swedish Academy member Katarina Frostenson, were two of the country’s most prominent cultural figures at the time. After the allegations were published, further reports alleged a conflict of interest regarding an arts club that Arnault and Frostenson ran together, which was subsidized by the Academy. It was also reported that Arnault, now 72, may have been responsible for leaking the shortlist of authors in consideration for the literature prize seven times since 1996 (the shortlisting and selection of the eventual Prize-winner is notoriously secretive).

Long regarded as a forum for elite and intellectual debate, the Academy was quickly overwhelmed by the scandal. Literary scholar Sara Danius, who was the first woman to lead the Academy and was in charge at the time the scandal broke, announced that she too had been sexually assaulted by Arnault. Yet Danius was forced to step down from the Academy by Arnault and Frostensen’s defenders, most notably former Academy secretary Horace Engdahl. Several other Academy members left in support of Danius, who said in August 2018 that “history will not be merciful about what today’s Swedish Academy is encountering, especially not to Mr Engdahl, to the extent he will be remembered at all.”

The Swedish Academy's Permanent Secretary Sara Danius talks to journalists as she leaves a meeting at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 12, 2018.JONAS EKSTROMER—AFP/Getty Images

Ravaged by infighting, accusations of corruption, and connections with serious sexual assault allegations, the Swedish Academy said in May 2018 that the Nobel Prize for Literature, traditionally announced every fall, was canceled for that year. In October 2018, Arnault was convicted of one count of rape and sentenced to two years in prison, as well as an $11,000 fine; he appealed but two months later, it was denied and he was found guilty of two counts of rape, resulting in $24,000 fine and a 30 month jail sentence.) In its place, several high profile Swedish writers and other cultural figures set up the New Academy prize in literature as a one-off “alternative Nobel” award: Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé was announced as the winner in October 2018. Swedish journalist, writer and President of PEN Sweden Jesper Bengtsson says that the Academy’s reputation was “damaged” by last year’s scandal. “It would be stupid to say anything else. But on the other hand, I think it is repairable, although it will take some time,” he says.

Observers say this year’s prize does have the potential to mark a comeback from the events of last year. Having recognized how low trust was in the Academy, several reforms have been made to address ongoing criticisms, many of which existed long before last year’s cancellation. A press release from the Nobel Foundation in March stated that the Academy amended its regulations, elected new members and appointed a new independent committee appointed to help select the eventual prize-winner. The statement also noted that members under criminal investigation or subject to a conflict of interest were no longer part of the Academy. Although the selection process for all the Nobel Prizes are famously secretive, with no shortlist or criteria publicly available, the Literature prize reforms outlined a series of structural changes and a commitment to “greater openness.”

“They had to clean up their house, and I’m glad they’re able to relaunch this year,” says novelist and chair of English PEN Maureen Freely, who was a translator for Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. “I admire organizations that own up to their mistakes and try to do something about them. I far prefer that than the opposite,” she says. Freely, who was part of the judging panel for the 2019 International Booker Prize, says it’s important that some parts of the decision-making for such prizes are kept under wraps. “I prefer it when the rules of a judging panel are transparent, but I also understand how, at a certain point, you can’t let everybody in on every single decision or every single criteria.”

The awarding of two prizes this year has also stoked significant interest in the potential runners and riders. The Nobel Foundation has said that the prizes are an appreciation of an individual’s contribution to literature as a whole; the person does not necessarily need to have released a new work in 2018 or 2019 to become a laureate. “After all, no other prize, with the exception of the International Booker Prize in its early years, recognises the totality of an author’s writing, or transcends all genres,” says Ted Hodgkinson, chair of the International Booker Prize. “So for all its past issues, there’s still scope for it to be an exciting cultural moment of reflection and revelation.”

Observers in the literary industry also see this year as a chance for the Prize to consider wider perspectives. “Now we are looking much more for the global totality,” said Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson in an interview, adding that the prize in previous years had been more Eurocentric and male-oriented. Only 14 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, out of a total of 114 individuals. Awards have gone to Laureates writing in 25 different languages through the award’s history, although 29 have been writers in the English language, making it the majority by far. “Everything seems to be pointing to at least one of the laureates being a woman, perhaps both, and to them being from different continents,” says Hodgkinson. “Given this double announcement, they may both stand alone and chime together as a pair, underscoring the start of a new chapter for the prize.” Among the international names thought to be in the running are Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez, French writer Annie Ernaux and Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, along with North American writers Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson and Marilynne Robinson.

For whoever wins the Thursday awards, the impact will stretch far beyond this week. “Prizes have the power to transform the fortunes of a book and recalibrate our understanding and appreciation of an entire literary culture,” Hodgkinson says, referring to Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, last year’s winner of the International Booker Prize. And in December, the new laureates will give speeches at the Nobel Prize-giving ceremonies in Stockholm. “I don’t always agree with the choices, but on balance it’s brought some very important voices to world attention,” Freely says. “Because Anglophone writing is so dominant, it runs the risk of closing all its windows, and that’s a shame, particularly for us readers. The Nobel Prize is the leader in efforts to push things in the other direction, and to open the windows.”

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