The Nobel Academy had just one job – but now the literature award has been cancelled because of a scandal. That’s a huge shame, says SUSANNA RUSTIN.
How many experts does it take to honour a genius? More than 10, the Swedish academy that awards the Nobel prize for literature has decided, after a scandal linked to the handling of sexual abuse allegations led to resignations, leaving the 18-strong panel eight members short. This year, it was announced on Friday, there will be no Nobel laureate to follow in the footsteps of TS Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre and Toni Morrison (and not nearly enough other women).
That this will have a dulling and depressing effect on 2018 is a no-brainer to anyone who thinks the prize serves a purpose. The Nobel, awarded to the author judged to have created “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, is a celebration of cleverness and goodness. Last year’s win by the Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the magnificent The Remains of the Day among many other fine and interesting books, was a bright spark in a gloomy year.
“That this will have a dulling and depressing effect on 2018 is a no-brainer to anyone who thinks the prize serves a purpose.”
The previous year’s winner, Bob Dylan, offered diversion of a different sort when it appeared that the musician, rewarded for his lyrics, might not want the medal, and sent Patti Smith to the ceremony in his place. He subsequently relented, attending a reception in Stockholm and delivering a recorded lecture reflecting on influences from Buddy Holly to Homer. But perhaps what the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, called its “Dylan adventure” was an unhelpful distraction from urgent business at home.
Danius’ resignation from her post last month, and public protests against this, were the culmination of a crisis that had been building for months, after allegations by 18 women against the French-Swedish photographer Jean-Claude Arnault were published in a newspaper. Arnault is married to an academy member and Swedish cultural grandee, the poet Katarina Frostenson, and the pair ran an arts club in Stockholm that was funded by the academy until it closed after the scandal broke last year. Last month Frostenson resigned from the academy. Arnaud denies all the allegations against him.
“Danius’ resignation from her post last month, and public protests against this, were the culmination of a crisis that had been building for months.”
Carl-Henrik Heldin, the chairman of the Nobel Foundation, says safeguarding the “long-term reputation” of the academy is now the priority. In this gap year it will modernise, become more open, and find a way to fill all those empty seats. The plan is that next year it will for the second time in its history award two prizes instead of one, so that a writer who might otherwise have won in 2018 does not miss out.
This could charitably be described as making the best of a bad lot, but it is still a colossal pity. Two authors sharing the limelight will naturally have less of it; no one gets the chance to shine this year; and the whole world misses out on one of the year’s biggest literary stories. Shame on the Swedish academy for getting itself into such a shocking mess. It had one job.
SUSANNA RUSTIN is a writer and editor at The Guardian.