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Citing ‘Crisis of Confidence,’ Academy Calls Off Nobel Literature Prize


The decision to postpone the award for a year amid a sexual misconduct scandal marked an extraordinary public reckoning for the 232-year-old organization.
STOCKHOLM — Faced with a sexual-abuse scandal, accusations of financial wrongdoing and hints of a cover-up, the Swedish Academy announced on Friday that for the first time in 69 years it would postpone awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The decision to delay the award marked an extraordinary and seamy public reckoning for a 232-year-old cultural organization that has long been admired as one of the world’s most prestigious scholarly bodies — but also criticized as secretive, arbitrary and patriarchal .
At the center of the firestorm is a member of the academy and her husband, who is accused of groping, harassing and assaulting at least 18 women over the years. The couple ran a cultural organization in Stockholm that received sizable payments from the academy, giving him the access and leverage, accusers say, to pressure women into sex.
As revelations emerged over the past five months, the academy cut its ties to the organization; the police opened a criminal investigation; members of the academy resigned in disgust; and the first woman to lead the academy was pushed out — brought down by other members seeking to play down the scandal, her defenders say.
All along, the academy insisted that it would proceed with this year’s prize as planned, with a laureate to be announced in October. But on Friday, after unrelenting pressure from the public, the foundation that oversees the Nobel Prizes, and even Sweden’s king, the academy called off this year’s competition.
“The present decision was arrived at in view of the currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence in the academy,” the institution said in a statement, citing “a crisis of confidence.”
This year’s award will be postponed until next year, when the academy will name two winners. The academy has deferred the prize seven times previously, most recently in 1949; that year’s prize was bestowed on William Faulkner in 1950. The academy is involved only in the literature award, so other Nobel Prizes are not affected.
An institution accustomed to weathering criticism about its literary judgments now finds itself facing the challenge of rebuilding its fundamental credibility.
“The rot that has taken hold within the academy” has been exposed, said Kjell Espmark, a historian who quit the academy in disgust. “Its high-minded goals have given way to nepotism, attempts to whitewash serious infractions, broken conflict-of-interest rules, musty macho values and arrogant bullying.”
The problems came to light in November, when the newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on a pattern of sexual misconduct by an academy member’s husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, a 71-year-old photographer, stretching over three decades.
Through his lawyer, Mr. Arnault has denied wrongdoing. But new accusations have continued to dribble out; just this week, it was reported that Mr. Arnault had groped Crown Princess Victoria, heir to Sweden’s throne.
Accusers said that Mr. Arnault used his sway in the arts world, including his connections to the academy, to pressure young women into sex, and that some of the offenses took place at academy-owned properties in Stockholm and Paris.
One woman, the artist Anna-Karin Bylund, said she complained to the academy in 1996 that Mr. Arnault had assaulted her, but her complaint was ignored. Another woman, the novelist Gabriella Hakansson, said Mr. Arnault assaulted her at a birthday party in 2007. A third, the journalist Lena ten Hoopen, said he groped her at a book fair in the southern city of Gothenburg.
“I managed to wriggle my way out and shouted at him, and he then said, ‘With that attitude, I am going to see to it that you don’t last long in this industry,’” she told Dagens Nyheter.
Along with sexual misconduct, Mr. Arnault has also been accused of leaking information about prize winners on numerous occasions, potentially profiting bookmakers who handle wagers on who will win.
Sara Danius, the first woman to be chosen as the academy’s permanent secretary, essentially its chief administrator, quickly severed its ties with Mr. Arnault and his organization, known as Forum. She also commissioned an investigation by a law firm to look into the academy’s financial and other support for Forum.
Ms. Danius was not rewarded for her efforts. Several of her allies quit in frustration, and last month her adversaries forced her out of the top post, although she remains a member of the academy. On the same day, Mr. Arnault’s wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, also stepped down.
Ms. Danius’s demotion prompted mass protests by critics who said that a woman had been scapegoated for the sexual misconduct of a man, and punished for trying to introduce openness and accountability to a group that preferred to close ranks.
With the academy depleted, and its secretive workings exposed to unflattering scrutiny, the Nobel Foundation, which manages the industrialist Alfred Nobel’s legacy and oversees all of the awards, stepped in to warn that the scandal risked tarnishing the prizes as a whole.
“The crisis in the Swedish Academy has adversely affected the Nobel Prize,” Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Nobel Foundation, said in a statement early Friday. He said that while the award was intended to be given yearly, it should be postponed when the group choosing winners had a problem “so serious that a prize decision will not be perceived as credible.”
Now humbled, the academy says it has a long way to go to rebuild trust.
“Confidence in the academy from the world around us has sunk drastically in the past half year,” the acting permanent secretary, the literary scholar Anders Olsson, told Swedish Radio on Friday, “and that is the decisive reason that we are postponing the prize.”
Another member, the historian Peter Englund, wrote in an email: “I think this was a wise decision, considering both the inner turmoil of the academy and the subsequent bloodletting of people and competence, and the general standing of the prize. Who would really care to accept this award under the current circumstances?”
Mats Svegfors, a well-known editor and publisher, now retired, said the matter threatened to damage Sweden as a whole.
“When institutions fail, that means that gradually we will lose trust, and that means that we lose confidence in our society,” he said. “When we realized that the Swedish Academy, that the institution doesn’t work, it hurts our self perception.”
The resignations have left the academy with only 10 active members.
Academy appointments are for life, and until this week, the organization’s rules did not provide for resignations; members who quit were treated as merely inactive, but could not be replaced.

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