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Opinion | Can the Nobel Restore Its Honor?

Opinion | Can the Nobel Restore Its Honor?


Many Nobel Prizes in Literature have raised eyebrows and questions over the years. But the award has survived as the world’s premier honor for creative writing largely because the Swedish Academy, which bestows it, is seen as eminently honorable and serious. So when a series of #MeToo accusations against someone close to the academy battered the august institution, it did the right thing by postponing this year’s award. The question is whether it can restore its authority.

The crisis began in November when a Stockholm daily newspaper published accusations of a long history of sexual assaults by Jean-Claude Arnault, a French-Swedish photographer. Recently it was reported that he had groped the heir to the Swedish throne, Crown Princess Victoria. Mr. Arnault has denied all the charges.

The Swedish Academy became entangled because Mr. Arnault’s wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, was a member. Together, they ran Forum, a prestigious club for cultural events that received money from the academy. Some of Mr. Arnault’s accusers said he assailed them in academy-owned apartments. The charges led to a dispute among the academy’s members over whether to oust Ms. Frostenson, and that, in turn, led to a series of resignations and public protests. Internal investigations prompted by the scandal uncovered that Mr. Arnault may have leaked the names of laureates in advance, a serious breach of Nobel protocol.

It is not hard to see why such a scandal would attract so much attention. Of the many #MeToo revelations, the most shocking have been those in which abusive behavior was concealed and enabled by a facade of decorum and decency. The Swedish Academy, whose patron is the Swedish king and whose 18 members are chosen for life (the king recently changed the rules to let members resign), epitomizes such propriety.

Yet it is often the very respectability of the aggressor or the institution that discourages women from reporting sexual assaults, as was the case in Sweden. By the same token, the greater the reputation, the deeper the fall once the truth is revealed.

The Swedish Academy faces a tough task cleaning up the mess, but it will survive. The greater question is whether this self-perpetuating academic elite can recover the credibility that gave its Nobel Prize its standing.

There has long been some doubt whether 18 Swedes, no matter how erudite, can comb through the literature of so many cultures and so many languages and select the best. But so long as the academy maintained an image of integrity and neutrality, the award maintained its luster. How much of that will survive will not become clear until 2019, when the academy plans to name two winners, and by which time it will have to provide a full accounting of what happened.



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