Nobel’s moment of reckoning

AuthorPublished: 7th May 2018  12:16 amUpdated: 6th May 2018  6:15 pm

It’s a “MeToo” moment for the high profile world of writing. Never in its 232 year old chequered history has the Swedish Academy, which confers the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature, faced such a crisis of confidence. The Stockholm-based secretive and conservative panel of writers and scholars has taken an extraordinary step of postponing this year’s Literature Prize as it is grappling with implications of an embarrassing sex scandal. The award winner will have to wait until next year when the Nobel Academy announces the names for both the years, an unprecedented decision for the hallowed institution. In the past, only a World War could disrupt the announcement of the most prestigious accolade for writing globally. At the center of the scandal is a string of allegations of sexual harassment against Jean-Claude Arnault, a 71-year-old photographer with close ties to the Academy stretching over three decades. He is the husband of the Academy member and poet Katarina Frostenson and is also close friend of other members. The couple owns the Forum, a well-known cultural center in Stockholm that received funding from the Academy. As shocking details emerged of how the high-profile artiste coerced several women for sexual favours, misusing his connections with the Academy, a string of resignations rocked the literary body, leaving it gasping for credibility. The resignations have left the Academy with only 10 active members — too few, under its rules, to elect new ones. The removal of permanent secretary Sara Danius, the first such exit in 230 years, shows the seriousness of the crisis facing the institution.

Time has come for the 18-member opaque and highly conservative Academy to re-invent itself in tune with the changing times and become more open and transparent in its functioning and also in picking the winners of the Literature Prize. Of late, the institution has been facing flak from academic community, with hundreds of professors and researchers signing petitions calling for action to restore its credibility. Even the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf had to intervene and promise reforms to enable the Academy to regain public faith. The rot that has crept into the Academy highlights the broken conflict of interest rules, nepotism, whitewashing serious infractions, musty macho values and arrogant bullying. Its reputation as a distinguished advocate of literary excellence has taken a serious beating. Urgent internal reforms are needed to make it more transparent and responsive. As per current rules, the members are elected for life, and there is no provision that allows them to resign. The seats of members who quit will remain unfilled until their deaths. Behind the mystical Nobel curtain is a small, homogenous group of fallible Swedes who go about judging all of world literature.