The Nobel prize literature committee is having a public meltdown

Past winners.
Past winners.
Image: TT News Agency/Reuters//Henrik Montgomery
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This week, the circus that is the world’s highest literary prize has a new sideshow.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel prize for literature, is meant to be a source of stability: Members are appointed for life. But it’s been melting down rather spectacularly and publicly over the last year. Accusations of sexual harassment by more than a dozen women against photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson, have toppled the institution and revealed it to be riddled with cronyism and abuses of power.

Of the 18 chairs in the academy, there are only 10 remaining with active members—in large part because of departures in the wake of the scandal. It’s a fact so embarrassing that the Nobel prize in literature will not even be given out this year as the academy attempts to salvage its prestige. The dysfunction continued this week: The Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet reported yesterday (link in Swedish) that three of the members who left in the aftermath of the scandal would return to the academy, followed by a report from Reuters asserting the same news.

But two of the members reported to be returning, Sara Danius and Peter Englund, immediately denied the story elsewhere. Englund writes to Quartz via email, “That is a misunderstanding. As of now I have no plans to return.” Referring to himself as well as Danius and Kjell Espmark, a third inactive member rumored to be returning, he said that they might “assist in the upcoming elections of new members.”

Danius, the former head of the academy, wrote on her Facebook page that the report was incorrect, and that she also had no plans to return.

Reuters, along with Svenska Dagbladet, has subsequently published a second story saying the members denied the initial report.

The committee has been stymied by its rigid bylaws since it lost the 12-person quorum needed to vote on new members. These three, at least, seem willing to abide by the academy’s stringent rules in order to usher it toward a different future.