What was the Nobel Prize in Literature? Everyone seems to think it’s over. December 10 is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death and the date on which the prizes in his name are traditionally awarded. This year, for the first time ever, the Prize in Literature has been entirely omitted from the ceremony: no medal, no presentation speech, not even the announcement of an absent or unwilling laureate. The Swedish Academy has retreated deep into rehab to deal with its multiple and scandalous dysfunctions, and the very future of the prize it has overseen for 117 years has been called into doubt.
Since May, when an exasperated Nobel Foundation forced this hiatus on the Academy by freezing its prize money, observers have increasingly seen the crisis in Stockholm as terminal. Most people expect the prize to be reestablished on some footing or other next year. Either the Academy, fitted out with some new members and supplementary bylaws, will resume its usual responsibilities, or a different institution will be put in charge, a new literary academy uncompromised by crimes and cover-ups and free from the rot of old-boy privilege. But either way, it is thought, the symbolic value of the prize has been fatally diminished. The special luster that made the Nobel matter more than any other cultural award has faded beyond hope of recovery.
I have my doubts about this dire prognosis. Though the most appalling particulars of the present case were brought to light by the #MeToo movement and feel sharply contemporary, its general form is familiar from a long history of corruption scandals and crises of legitimacy involving cultural awards. Not only do awards tend to survive these upheavals, they often emerge stronger than before, with enhanced capacity to shape reputations and influence the larger systems of cultural esteem.
Indeed, my research finds that a prize’s long-term success actually depends on these kinds of low and embarrassing episodes, which attract public investment into the very market for symbolic capital that makes prizes necessary and keeps them afloat. The Nobel Prize in Literature thrived in the 20th century not despite eruptions of outrage over the judgments of the Swedish Academy but because of them. Its current miserable condition may be just what the doctor ordered to secure its vitality for the century to come.
When the story first broke last year—thanks to fine investigative reporting by Matilda Gustavsson at the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter—the villain of the piece was then 71-year-old Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault. Arnault is not a writer or an intellectual, let alone an elected member of the Swedish Academy. He’s a sleazy entrepreneur and impresario of the Stockholm arts scene, co-owner of a downtown club called Forum, which served as a hangout for the cultural elite and a space where Arnault could use his power and connections to exploit vulnerable young women hoping to make careers in literature or the art world.
Inspired by #MeToo in the United States, 18 women came forward with detailed accounts of harassment by Arnault, asserting a pattern of violent groping and sexual abuse over several decades. Arnault denies any wrongdoing, but a number of specific accusations have since been corroborated and he is now a convicted rapist facing a two-year jail sentence.
What does this have to do with the Nobel Prize in Literature? The answer leads to a second villain, Arnault’s wife and presumed enabler, Katarina Frostenson. A distinguished poet who was elected to the Academy in 1992, Frostenson was silent partner in ownership of the Forum and helped to make the club an unofficial “living room” for Academy members as well as a beneficiary of the Academy’s financial largesse via substantial annual subsidies.
Through her, Arnault became so closely connected to the 18-member Swedish Academy that he was known to insiders as its “19th member,” enjoying many perks and privileges of a small fraternity that controls multiple apartments in Paris and Stockholm (luxury locations for some of Arnault’s alleged sexual assaults) and distributes millions of dollars each year in grants and fellowships. An independent investigation by a respected legal firm into the financial ties between Forum and the Academy yielded the further allegation that, clued in by Frostenson, Arnault had been leaking the names of Nobel winners to associates in Paris a day or two prior to the official announcement, which if true would explain the flurries of late wagering that transformed long-shot laureates like Le Clezio (15-to-1 in 2008) or Modiano (100-to-1 in 2014) into 11th-hour favorites.
The Nobel Prize in Literature thrived in the 20th century not despite eruptions of outrage over the judgments of the Swedish Academy but because of them.
But as the saga unfolded, a third figure of villainy emerged: Horace Engdahl, the former permanent secretary and a vocal apologist for Arnault and Frostenson. Here in the US, Engdahl is best remembered for his description of American literature as peripheral to the world republic of letters; our culture, he said in 2008, is “too isolated, too insular” to be a serious participant in “the big dialogue of literature.” The indignation that greeted these remarks in the US was probably excessive. Engdahl was right that we “do not translate enough” and that, compared to other countries, an inordinately large fraction of what we read consists of our own domestic literature. But the imperious, self-regarding tone in which he expressed the views is typical. Though he completed his term as permanent secretary in 2009, Engdahl has seemed to take the title quite literally, fashioning himself the Academy’s true leader and spokesperson ever since, and holding forth as such throughout the recent months of turmoil.
When the allegations against Arnault appeared in Dagens Nyheter, the permanent secretary was Sara Danius—the first woman to hold that position since the Academy’s founding. Appalled by testimony of Arnault’s predatory and abusive behavior, Danius declared all ties between him and the Academy severed, and it was she who ordered the independent investigation that uncovered irregularities in the Academy’s relationship to Forum and evidence that Arnault and Frostenson may have been leaking confidential information for financial gain or social credit. Upon receiving the report, Danius called for Frostenson to withdraw from active participation in the Academy, and when Frostenson refused, she put the matter to a vote.
Engdahl countered, rallying a group large enough to prevail in supporting Frostenson. When this led three members to withdraw in protest, Engdahl blamed Danius personally for the schism, calling her the worst permanent secretary in the Academy’s history and encouraging his now more potent majority faction to support an arrangement whereby Frostenson would be pushed to withdraw after all, but only on condition that Danius step down as permanent secretary. It was, as Danius put it, a piece of “horse trading”: “one side offered a woman, and the other did, too.” The deal was approved, and Danius promptly renounced her Academy membership “with immediate effect.” In solidarity with Danius, Sara Stridsberg withdrew soon after.
These withdrawals are a somewhat complicated matter. Members of the Swedish Academy are awarded their positions for life. They cannot voluntarily surrender their seats. What they can do is simply cease participation in the activities of the Academy, rendering the seat dormant though still technically occupied until their death. Two seats were already dormant when Danius and Stridsberg walked out, meaning the Academy was left at that point with eight zombie seats and an active membership of just 10. That’s two shy of the quorum required for further conduct of business—including the business of electing the new members needed to achieve a quorum.
This catch-22 situation brought into play the King of Sweden, who, asserting his royal authority over the Academy, suggested he might disband it altogether and place responsibility for the prize in steadier hands. His intervention prompted some emergency meetings, and within a few months it was announced that Danius and two others who had withdrawn over the Arnault affair were returning to at least semi-active membership. The Academy’s statutes were then revised to allow for the election of new members to seats left dormant. By late October three new members had been elected, bringing the active numbers back up to 16, with Anders Olsson serving as permanent secretary pro tempore.
These moves resolved the immediate existential threat to the Swedish Academy. But it is not clear that the old-boy clubroom atmosphere promoted by Engdahl and his faction has been dispelled. The term “old boy” is no mere metaphor in this context. Life expectancy is long in Sweden. Göran Malmqvist has been in the Academy more than 30 years and is now 94. Sture Allén, Engdahl’s staunchest supporter, will turn 90 this month; he was elected to the Academy the same year Ronald Reagan was elected president. It was in fact during Allén’s term as permanent secretary 20 years ago that allegations of sexual harassment against Arnault were first put before the Academy, in a letter received from a traumatized young artist named Anna Karin-Bylund. Allén declined to take any action because, as he explained, “the contents of the letter didn’t seem important.”
Excluding the two male members who joined Danius in protest and the newly elected Eric Runesson and Mats Malm, the average age of male seat holders is 78. The election of Runesson, who fills a seat previously held by a woman, means that men now hold an even larger majority—12 out of 16—than they did before the scandal. That happens to be the same gender ratio as the 15 out of 20 Nobel laureates who’ve been men since Engdahl joined the Academy.
As this gap year draws to a close, then, the affair seems to have yielded more embarrassment and upheaval than concrete reform. The many calls in Sweden for “modernization” of the nation’s premier cultural institution—for wider inclusivity, transparency, and accountability—seem not to have been heard. The Academy has doubtless been chastened, but it has undertaken no drastic program of redemption or renewal. To Georg Diez, writing in Der Speigel, what has transpired this last year in Stockholm is a classic case of a great institution’s decline and fall, “as sad as a book by Strindberg.” To Andrew Brown at the Guardian, the story has “elements of a tragedy”: “People who set out to serve literature and culture discovered they were only pandering to writers and the people who hang around with them. The pursuit of excellence in art was entangled with the pursuit of social prestige.”
To be sure, there is sadness and tragedy here, in the testimonies of women subjected to insult and abuse and prevented, by a continuing culture of impunity for powerful men, from finding appropriate support or means of redress. But the rest of it does not, I think, rise to the level of the tragic. Cultural journalists like to wax indignant at the thought of aesthetic judgments becoming entangled with social interests and biases, but such entanglement—along with the indignant commentary—defines the whole history of prizes and awards.
The Nobel Prize in Literature was from its inception an enterprise whose lofty aesthetic ideals were dependent on plainly suspect and outmoded social machinery. Even before the first prize was awarded, in 1901, there were serious doubts about the suitability of the Swedish Academy members—most of them aesthetically conservative classicists, clergymen, or philologists with little interest in contemporary literature—to the task of adjudicating literary achievement across some 30 languages and national traditions. The members themselves, content with their mission to defend the “purity, vigor, and majesty” of the Swedish language, were not enthusiastic about shouldering a mountain of new work merely to fulfill the whim of a deceased tycoon. They had to be incentivized. This was done by the permanent secretary, Carl David af Wirsén, who enticed them with the prospect of suddenly elevated standing and influence in Paris, the capital of European letters, and with the unprecedentedly generous financial emoluments that Nobel’s estate was prepared to earmark for judges: annual stipends the size of a professor’s salary, piles of walking-around money, and, as a kind of signing bonus, funds to construct a grand new building for their banquets, meetings, and personal offices.
Judging scandals provide a special boost to prizes by reinforcing the structure of doubt and belief in which they are embedded.
The Nobel, in other words, was not some purely literary endeavor into which the motivations of money and power managed gradually to seep. Between the estate of a munitions magnate and the aged members of a backwater philological academy, specifically literary capital was always in short supply, requiring heavy social and financial subsidy from the get-go.
Indeed, the strange alchemy of cultural awards is such that only this suspect admixture of capitals can produce the kind of prestige that has major effects in the world. A prize cannot achieve recognition as a gold standard of literary value unless it also provokes condescension and outrage over its impurity.
The very first Literature Nobel, presented to Sully Prudhomme in 1901, caused a storm of protest and prompted an open letter from Sweden’s leading writers, critics, and artists, who wished to make clear that “the institution which has control over said prize” did not at all represent Swedish literary opinion, and that all thoughtful Swedes knew Leo Tolstoy was the world’s “greatest and most profound poet.” Not every Nobel announcement creates such controversy, but the Academy’s selections have drawn fire at regular intervals. The members have been accused of rampant favoritism toward Scandinavians, and especially Swedes; particular scorn was heaped upon them in 1974, when they awarded the prize to two of the Academy’s own membership. They have been denounced for playing politics with literary judgment, withholding the prize from the Pinochet-supporting Jorge Louis Borges in the 1970s, for example, or awarding it to the Bush-bashing Harold Pinter in 2005.
Their decision to present the prize to Bob Dylan two years ago led to volumes of heated commentary. In choosing a popular songwriter, the Academy was either, as the New York Times put it, boldly “redefining the boundaries of literature” or, as many critics felt, abandoning established norms of eligibility and squandering the literary world’s highest honor on a megacelebrity of the music world with a net worth of $200 million. And since Dylan was the first American laureate of the Engdahl era, some in the American literary scene took the announcement as a further sneer at our supposedly “too insular” novelists, another expression of gross anti-American sentiment dressed up in the guise of aesthetic judgment.
Considering what a magnet for controversy the Nobel has been, it’s surprising that the Academy’s internal quarrels and divisions have not erupted into public view before now. For most major awards in literature and the arts—the Man Booker, say, or the Goncourt—public rows and schisms and leaking scandals are almost commonplace. For the Nobel, something like what has happened this year was probably overdue. And judging from the way such scandals have played out for other prizes, we can expect the impact to be largely positive.
Certainly there will be tremendous anticipation and unprecedentedly wide coverage of the announcement next year, when two laureates will be crowned for the first time in half a century. Will the Academy make a statement by choosing two women? Will it lift the 25-year embargo on American novelists? The announcement will also be an occasion to rehash the whole story of this year’s train wreck, going over the scandalous circumstances that impelled the Academy to double up on the medals for 2019 in the first place. Some of the judges are now known figures, characters in an ongoing drama of literary heroes and villains, the kind of story that lends itself to extended feature pieces rather than mere news coverage.
All this attention will tend to serve the interests of the prize, and not just because more publicity is generally better than less. As I discussed in my book The Economy of Prestige, judging scandals provide a special boost to prizes by reinforcing the structure of doubt and belief in which they are embedded. Scandals reaffirm the sheer imperfect humanness of the judges, their biases and prejudices, their egoism and cupidity and lack of gravitas. They underscore the embarrassingly petty side of cultural life, the ordinary mess of social processes by means of which the value of artists and artworks is hashed out on the ground of history. But then, amplified as they are by the journalistic rhetoric of shock and outrage (how sad! how tragic!), these same scandals provide an ideal occasion for the public to renew its collective belief, or make-belief, in a pure form of aesthetic value, a separate, higher form of excellence that can only ever be imperfectly grasped by clunky and corruptible social mechanisms like nomination, voting, and the presentation of medals.
That is the belief on which the Nobel, like all serious prizes in literature and the arts, is predicated: belief in the something-higher of which the prize itself can only ever aspire to be a best approximation. Were that belief to collapse, so too would any interest in who wins or doesn’t win the prize, in the whole question of the judges getting it right or getting it wrong—“it” being the very stake of the literary game. Even a scandal as tawdry as the one that has engulfed the Swedish Academy this year thus constitutes a kind of backhanded endorsement and legitimation of the Nobel Prize and an acknowledgment of its raison d’être.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.