This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is being postponed until 2019, but the scandal engulfing the Swedish Academy, which decides the winners, has tarnished the group and likely damaged the world’s best known book prize.
The controversy — involving the academy’s tangled connection to a man facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct — has put the secretive Swedish institution under the microscope, causing many to question the previously respected intellectual body and its relevance today.
The Swedish Academy is an institution with an important and rich history, but “it’s not above the law and must deal with allegations of sexual harassment or assault in an effective and timely manner,” Elana Rabinovitch, executive director of Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, told CBC News on Friday.
“We hope dealing with these issues with transparency and promptness will enable the [academy] to re-emerge as a more mindful cultural institution. The #MeToo movement has rightfully forced organizations to examine their corporate culture, behaviours and structure and all should come out the better for it.”
Is it a great loss for the world that we won’t have a Nobel literature winner this year?
No, says novelist and Globe and Mail cultural columnist Russell Smith, who believes this “meltdown” of the Swedish Academy will actually further a trend of people feeling less romantic about the Nobel Prize.
Over time, the academy has moved beyond the initial direction Alfred Nobel left in his will regarding the awarding of the literature prize and, simply put, “the criterion for the book they’re trying to select is not at all clear,” Smith said.
“Are they trying to say the best work? The most idealistic? The most influential? We don’t know.”
In addition, our earlier acceptance that academy members — “a group of highly educated Suedes who come from a very homogeneous culture,” according to Smith — can effectively evaluate and contrast literature hailing from so many different cultures and countries around the globe is fading.
Why on earth have we always taken this highly secretive, elite and homogeneous group so seriously?– Russell Smith, novelist
“Why on earth have we always taken this highly secretive, elite and homogeneous group so seriously?” Smith asked, pointing out that the academy’s lack of diversity is exactly the opposite of what literary institutions in Canada and elsewhere are striving for.
“In order for [the Nobel Prize] to work, you have to believe in the utmost integrity and probity of the people involved. You have to believe that since it’s not an open and transparent process, we just trust that they take it extremely seriously,” he said.
“It appears that maybe these people don’t have the perfect integrity that we require them to have.”
Sweden grapples with #MeToo
Sweden is considered to be a role model of a progressive nation with feminist policies. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, says Judith Taylor, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.
“Just because you have good sex education, just because you have good maternal leave, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have evolved as a society in terms of the way that men and women treat one another in the workplace,” she explained.
When the #MeToo campaign of calling out sexual harassment and assault began to spread worldwide last fall, Sweden wasn’t immune. The sexual misconduct allegations linked to the Swedish Academy arrived amid a flood of stories shared by women from the worlds of art, law, technology, media and politics in the Scandinavian nation.
Movements like #MeToo “really can rock the foundation of these long-respected institutions that always thought they were above the fray,” said Taylor.
Facing this pressure from #MeToo, the Swedish Academy joins many organizations worldwide tasked with fixing themselves. But author and 2018 Giller jury chair Kamal Al-Solaylee says he isn’t optimistic the group can put its house in order and change more than a century of its institutional culture in just 12 months.
“It seems to be mired in secrecy and it’s such a patriarchal organization, kind of like a cabal … It’s just so 19th-century,” he said.
For organizations awarding cultural prizes, “transparency is probably the one lesson that we all could learn from this,” he added, saying everything from submission guidelines to how jurors are selected should be divulged.
“There’s a trust when people know how decisions are made.”
Cultural awards have perennially faced criticism from those who question pitting disparate works against each other. Still, there remains an undeniable excitement and drama to any competition, as well as the romantic notion of a high-minded jury debating art. There’s also the inevitable betting that comes with it.
“There’s something really cool about the idea of an academy with fancy clothes and secret rituals in their meetings,” said Smith.
“It’s just no longer really relevant in the modern world, that’s all.”