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.)
The scandal has been unfolding since November, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Back then, Matilda Gustavsson, an enterprising 31-year-old culture reporter at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, published a damning front-page investigation in which 18 women accused an unnamed man—now widely identified as Jean-Claude Arnault, he of the literary club—of varying degrees of sexual harassment and even rape over many years. (An abbreviated English-language version of the story is here.) Arnault has denied the allegations. He was later accused of having harassed even Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria. And of leaking the names of Nobel winners for years—a hot commodity not least because people actually place bets on them.
The report in Dagens Nyheter—which featured pictures of the 18 women on the newspaper’s front page, some only showing the backs of their heads—prompted national outrage. So much so that Sara Danius, a scholar of French literature and theory who in 2015 became the first woman to lead the Swedish Academy, brought in a law firm to conduct an internal investigation and broke the Academy’s ties with Arnault’s literary club. But the housecleaning didn’t go over well with some members of the Swedish Academy, who reportedly sided with Arnault. In response, Danius stepped down—inasmuch as one can leave a lifelong sinecure—her supporters in the Academy quit in solidarity with her, and the body was left with only a handful of members, ones who seemed to represent the old ways.
More outrage ensued, to the point that thousands of people took to the streets in Stockholm last month to protest the Academy’s dysfunction and opacity. Some pinned “pussy bows” to their shirts in honor of Danius, who is known for wearing blouses with the unfortunately named embellishment. It had come to that.
In its statement calling off this year’s Nobel for literature, the Nobel Foundation, which underwrites the prizes whose winners the Swedish Academy selects, was blunt. “The Nobel Foundation presumes that the Swedish Academy will now put all its efforts into the task of restoring its credibility as a prize-awarding institution and that the Academy will report the concrete actions that are undertaken.” It added: “We also assume that all members of the Academy realize that both its extensive reform efforts and its future organizational structure must be characterized by greater openness towards the outside world.”
I spoke to Gustavsson Friday and asked if she would ever have imagined her story would result in the Nobel Prize in literature not being awarded for a year. She had mixed feelings. “It’s bad because the Nobel Prize is supposed to be something very big and beautiful,” she said. But she said the women she’d interviewed for her story had at first been terrified to speak out, and as writers, terrified they would never get published again in Sweden. It is after all a small country where the man they were accusing had tremendous clout and used his affiliation with the Swedish Academy—and its financial support to writers—as a source of power.
“To testify against powerful men is something that has always in history come with a price for women. And they’ve been ignored or their testimonies have been turned against them or they’ve been shamed or exposed in different ways,” Gustavsson told me. “It’s a big thing that women are speaking up like this and doing this and can change the world and shake the foundation of the strongest cultural institution we have in Sweden. That’s something.”
It’s darkly ironic, and actually kind of amusing, that a Frenchman was at the heart of this Swedish scandal. Everyone seemed to be playing to type. Gustavsson said Arnault’s place in the culture—his dashing image as a European intellectual sitting around drinking Bordeaux—derived in part from his going against the grain in Sweden. “He represented something that was maybe a bit rebellious against the political correctness and something that was more dark and interesting,” she said. “He had this so-called French behavior—being too physical with women and always commenting on women’s bodies; that was his default setting,” she said. The default response, she went on, was often “’Oh, he’s just a Frenchman.’” She had been surprised, she said, when the stories that came out were far worse.
Little is known about the inner workings of the Swedish Academy. Its criteria for membership are somewhat mysterious. Members are said to have access to excellent real estate in Stockholm, and to an apartment in Paris—where some of Arnault’s escapades are said to have taken place. In an interview with Gustavsson in 2014, one Academy member, Kristina Lugn, described the Academy as a kind of utopian community, a family that supported its members for life.
And then, of course, they vote to select the Nobel laureate for literature. That’s why it’s a running joke in literary circles that the most beautiful words in the English language are “my Swedish publisher.” Being published in Sweden of course raises your chances of catching the Academy’s eye. (Note to aspirants: Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner for literature, had a regular column in a Swedish newspaper for many years; she also writes masterpieces that in my view fully deserved the Nobel Prize.)
Alexievich herself recently weighed in on the scandal. “Those who have broken the rules should be scrutinized,” she told the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet. Dostoyevsky, she added, taught “that human beings are unreliable creatures, so laws and rules are needed to ensure that this does not repeat itself.”
The Academy didn’t respond to requests for comment about what comes next or what its precise ties to Arnault were; its acting director told Swedish radio it was taking measures to clean up in the wake of the scandal. But the biggest question is still unanswered: Who will choose next year’s Nobel laureate in literature? Sweden has a reputation for a civic life based on transparency and trust. That’s a national cliché the Swedish Academy might want to preserve.
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