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Moving on from scandal, Swedish Academy to award two Nobel literature prizes

Moving on from scandal, Swedish Academy to award two Nobel literature prizes
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By Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Swedish body that awards the annual Nobel prize for literature will name two winners this week, including one for 2018 when the ceremony was scuttled by a sexual assault scandal that prompted reforms by the long secretive organisation.

The Swedish Academy was forced to shelve the 2018 prize when it was engulfed by rape accusations against the husband of an Academy member. The 233-year-old Academy has since made changes it billed as improving its transparency and clearing the way for the double awards on Thursday.

But the Nobel Foundation, which funds the literary world’s most prestigious, $914,000 prize, said the Academy – whose members are elected for life and statutes can be changed only with the approval of Sweden’s king, needed to do more.

“I think they can, and to some extent they have already begun doing so, act more openly than they have done in the past and I think that would be a good thing,” said Lars Heikensten, executive director of the Nobel Foundation.

“We have also agreed with the Academy that they should review the lifetime membership and test out ideas on limited terms of office,” he told Reuters.

Heikensten forced the Academy to postpone the 2018 award and bring outside experts onto its awards panel. Only this May did he give the Academy a green light to award a winner for 2019. Graphic: Graphic of Nobel laureates, click

“Our reputation is everything,” Heikensten said. “Obviously, it is important to avoid this kind of situation we have been in and of course it cannot be repeated.”

To that end the Nobel Foundation has been drafting a common code of conduct for all prize-awarding bodies. It will cover aspects like ensuring the names of laureates under consideration are kept secret, conflicts of interest, and nepotism.

“There have been regulations at the individual institutions, but we believe there is a value in having a common set of rules, not least that it should be clearer how the rules should be applied,” Heikensten said.

The Swedish Academy declined to comment for this article.

Among this year’s award favourites with bookmakers are Canadian poet Anne Carson, novelist Maryse Condé from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and Japanese author Haruki Murakami.


Under the Academy’s reforms, members can now voluntarily resign and several have done so, including Katarina Frostenson, a poet whose husband is now serving a prison term for rape and was also accused of leaking the names of several prize winners.

Previously, some members who tired of their duties just stopped coming to meetings and could not be replaced until they died. Some Academy members had been inactive for many years.

“More change is needed. I would like to see a more comprehensive reform of the Academy,” said Ingrid Elam, literature professor at Gothenburg University, adding that an age limit would be essential for the reputation of the prize.

“They should set an age limit of 80 for members and work much more with time-limited committees. People have a tendency to award only for what they already know about and to think that (other works) are kitsch, not art, or just not good enough.”

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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