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After Nobel prize falls to #MeToo, what's next for literature's highest honor?

New thinking

It started in Hollywood in the temples of mass entertainment. Now #MeToo has reached Parnassus, as a sexual harassment scandal taints the world's most prestigious literary prize and forces the international cultural establishment to rethink its values.

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Demonstrators at Stortorget Square in Stockholm gathered April 19 after the ouster of Sara Danius, who stepped down as leader of the Swedish Academy. With the scandal tainting the reputation of Sweden itself, some protested for the removal of the Academy's entire board. The Academy will not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this year after allegations of sexual harassment by the husband of an Academy member surfaced in November.

Fredrik Persson/TT News/Reuters

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Have you ever heard of Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson?

You are forgiven. They were the now-forgotten winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974 when the Swedish Academy that selects the laureates decided to honor two of its own members. They were found more deserving than Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Graham Greene, none of whom ever won the prize.

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That sparked a scandal. But there is no risk that the Academy will make such a crass misjudgment this year. Another scandal has now swept Sweden’s most august literary institution – this time involving sexual abuse allegations – and the Nobel Prize in Literature will not be awarded at all in 2018.

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In a major blow to Sweden’s self-image and global reputation, which are closely linked to the prizes that Alfred Nobel created, the secretive high priests of the world’s most prestigious literary prize have been overwhelmed by their own #MeToo moment.

The husband of an Academy member – and beneficiary of Academy funding – has been accused of groping and assaulting at least 18 women over more than 20 years. The affair has prompted five members to withdraw from Academy deliberations, though they could not resign because they were named for life.

Katarina Frostenson (l.) and photographer Jean Claude Arnault, her husband, are at the center of the the Swedish Academy's decision to postpone the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Arnault has been accused of sexual harassment and of leaking names of prizewinners. The couple ran a cultural club with support from the Academy.
Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AP/File

Short of members, low on public trust, and suffering from a lack of credibility, the Academy announced on Friday that for the first time in 69 years it would make no literature award.

The 18 member panel “needs time to regain its full complement, engage a larger number of active members and regain confidence in its work, before the next Literature Prize winner is declared,” it said in a statement.

The 2018 and 2019 winners will both be announced next year.

The crisis has prompted some soul-searching. “The active members of the Swedish Academy are in agreement that … to retain respect for its unique historical legacy, the Academy’s operative practices need to be evolved. The Academy has therefore newly begun a comprehensive work of change,”  Friday’s statement pledged.

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The scandal has hit at the heart of a notoriously opaque institution; unlike the juries of other international literary awards, the Academy has never felt the need to explain the thinking behind its decisions.

That reluctance was especially keenly felt in 2016, when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded for the first time to a songwriter, Bob Dylan, in a fiercely debated move. Last year’s recipient, Kazuo Ishiguro, was a critically lauded choice.

The decision was seen by some observers as a daring bid by a hidebound cultural establishment to keep up with the times. But the allegations of sexual harassment that have surfaced in recent months against Jean-Claude Arnault, a noted photographer with close ties to the Academy, suggest that it was still steeped in the old ways.

Mr. Arnault and his wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson who is a member of the Academy, ran a cultural club that was partly funded by the Academy. A number of women have accused him of harassing them at the club and at Academy-owned properties in Stockholm and Paris. Some say they told the Academy, but that it did nothing.

Arnault, who denies all the allegations, is also reported to have leaked the names of Nobel literature prize winners – valuable information for bettors – on a number of occasions. The chief prosecutor of Sweden’s Economic Crime Authority confirmed late last month that he had opened a preliminary investigation into the Swedish Academy, without giving details of its target.

The year-long postponement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature does not affect the other prizes funded by a bequest in Alfred Nobel’s will. The Peace Prize is awarded by a committee named by the Norwegian parliament, while the Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine prizes are decided by Swedish scientific institutions.

The resignations last month of three Academy members over the way the Arnault matter had been handled brought into the open a simmering dispute among the 18-strong body whose members are designated for life and cannot be replaced during their lifetime.

The conflict also forced the Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, to step down from her post; at the same time Ms. Frostenson agreed to abstain from the Academy’s activities.

Those five casualties proved fatal: Three other members were already inactive for one reason or another (the novelist Kerstin Ekman has played no part since the Academy failed to express support for Salman Rushdie in the face of death threats in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, for example), so that left only 10 active members. The required quorum is 12.

Last week the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, the patron of the Academy, stepped in to resolve the technical problems this situation had revealed. He announced that he would change the rules to allow resignations and the replacement of members who had been inactive for two years or more.

That will not only allow renewed deliberation of Nobel-related issues; it will also facilitate the Swedish Academy’s original task, which is centered on protecting “the purity, strength and majesty of the Swedish language.”

The Academy published the first volume of its Swedish dictionary in 1898. Thus far it has reached the letter “V.”