PARIS—Somewhere, Philip Roth must be laughing. For years, his readers reckoned he’d probably never win the Nobel Prize in literature since his sensibility is hardly in line with that of the Swedish Academy, whose 18 members select the prizewinners and thereby wield outsized power in the international world of letters. Their mandate is to pick idealistic works and their taste, the stereotype goes, tends toward social justice, egalitarianism, and an austere, humorless feminism. That cliché officially ended Friday, when the Academy—its credibility destroyed by a nasty sexual harassment scandal—announced it wouldn’t even award a Nobel Prize in literature this year.
The scandal is complex but centers on the husband of one of the Academy’s members, who happens to be French, and who for decades has had a powerful role in Stockholm literary life. He’s an amateur photographer and, with his Academician wife, ran a club and literary salon that received funding from the Swedish Academy. There, he surrounded himself with lovely young women and is alleged to have made more than passes at more than a few of them. Apparently you can get away with a lot in Sweden if you have a French accent. Or could. That seems to be over, too. Maybe the times they are a changin’, as the 2016 Nobel laureate in literature might put it. (That Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize caused a smaller scandal of its own among Nobel watchers, whose reaction ran along the lines of “Really?” In The New York Times, the novelist Tim Parks reinforced a growing sense that the prize had become silly. “As the Swedes squirm with embarrassment, the real butts of this farce are the critics who insist on taking the Nobel seriously,” he wrote Friday.)