Swedish Academy To Name 2 Nobel Laureates in Literature In 2019, After Missing 2018

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 9, 2019 3:10 pm
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Two years ago, a sex scandal derailed the Nobel Prize for literature. It threw the staid Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, into such turmoil that it skipped giving an award last year. The academy has made some changes to address its problems, and this year it will give two Nobels, one for 2018 and another for 2019. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In a normal year, says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, the Nobel Prize is a big event. After a year's absence, he's looking forward to the announcement of the winners.

MITCHELL KAPLAN: I'm thrilled to have the Nobel Prize back and doubly thrilled that there'll be two this year.

NEARY: Kaplan says the prize often brings well-deserved attention to authors who are not well-known. It also helps sell the authors' books. And while Kaplan was aware of the problems that engulfed the Swedish Academy two years ago, he says he's not heard much about it since.

KAPLAN: There hasn't been a lot of discussion about the fact that there wasn't one last year, nor has there really been a lot of discussion among readers that there was a scandal around it.

NEARY: But there was scandal, and lots of it. In late 2017, Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of Swedish Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused of sexual assault or harassment by 18 women. He was later found guilty of rape. Those accusations were followed by charges of financial impropriety and leaking the names of winners for gambling purposes.

SARA DANIUS: It's already affected the Nobel Prize quite severely, and that is a rather big problem.

NEARY: Sara Danius was the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy at the time, the first woman to hold that position. Danius moved to sever ties with Frostenson and Arnault. Some academy members sided against her, and Danius stepped down under pressure. Frostenson also left the academy, as did a number of others. Because members were appointed for life, no one could be named to replace them.

Alok Yadav is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.

ALOK YADAV: There was this internal crisis of just the functioning of the academy - divisions, factions, confrontations within the membership. So this produced a situation where there was a question - initially, at least - of whether the academy was going to disintegrate.

NEARY: There were not enough active members to award the Nobel Prize. So instead, the academy decided to take some time to restore confidence in the literature prize.

MATS MALM: I don't think we will succeed with that this year. This will have to take time, but I think we will get there.

NEARY: Mats Malm is the new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Malm says there's already been some progress. Members are no longer appointed for life and so can be replaced when they resign. And there's been a significant change in the makeup of the Nobel Literature Committee, which makes the recommendations that the full academy votes on.

MALM: The academy has always called for support from specialists and experts of different kinds in order to widen perspectives. But last year, a new Nobel committee was established with four members of the academy and five external experts.

NEARY: Malm says the academy will decide whether to keep the external experts after two years.

George Mason University professor Yadav thinks that's a good idea. He says the new committee skews younger and has more women.

YADAV: It'll have a different kind of credibility. It'll help widen the sense of the range of voices that are speaking in the deliberative process involved in selecting the winner.

NEARY: One thing that has not changed about the literature prize - speculation on who will win continues and is likely to be wrong.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.