Three members quit Swedish Academy as row splits Nobel-awarding body

Three members quit Swedish Academy as row splits Nobel-awarding body
The Swedish Academy honouring 2017 Nobel Prize winnter Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT
Three members of the Swedish Academy – the prestigious body that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature – stepped down on Friday in a move that shocked the literature world.

The Swedish Academy has been rocked by a series of rows over a scandal that emerged last year, when several women accused a man – who is not a household name in Sweden but has strong ties to the Academy and is a well-known figure on Stockholm's cultural scene – of sexual abuse and harassment.

It sparked a crisis on the Academy committee, which decided to cut all ties and funding to the man – who has been referred to as “the culture profile” in Swedish media – with immediate effect.

The Academy said at the time that it had potentially broken its own rules regulating conflict of interest and appointed a legal firm to investigate its committee members' ties to the man in question.

Swedish media report that the investigation is now finished and that Friday's resignations come on the back of a meeting yesterday, when the Academy met to word a press statement to be sent out next week.

Renowned author Klas Östergren stepped down in the afternoon, followed in quick succession by fellow members of the Academy Kjell Espmark and Peter Englund.

Östergren announced his departure in typically striking Academy style by referring both to King Gustaf III, its founder back in 1786, and a quote by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

“The Swedish Academy has for a long time had serious problems and has now tried to solve them in a way that puts obscure considerations before its own statutes, which is a betrayal of its founder and patron, and not least its mission to represent genius and taste. Therefore, I have chosen to no longer take part in its activities. 'I'm leaving the table, I'm out of the game',” Östergren told Svenska Dagbladet, with the last line in English.

The Swedish Academy, which has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, has 18 permanent members. Membership is for life and a person who quits is traditionally not replaced until their death. Two more members have previously resigned, for other reasons not related to the recent crisis.

Permanent Secretary Sara Danius told Svenska Dagbladet that the Academy was now looking at revising the rules, making it possible for a member to leave and be replaced by another person. She said she was saddened by the trio's decision, but added that she understood their reasoning.

Danius added that she herself had thought about quitting.

“That's what you do in these situations, you consider various options. But I feel that our mission is so important that it is greater than our differences of opinion. I have come to the decision that I will keep going as long as I can, but I will work for what's right,” she told the newspaper.

Few other details were released on Friday, but that did not stop the rest of the Swedish world of literature and culture from commenting.

“It's like the whole Tower of Babel is collapsing, it's very interesting,” Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet's culture editor Åsa Linderborg described the situation.

Dagens Nyheter's culture editor Björn Wiman described it as a “catastrophe”.

“It is difficult to see how the Academy will be able to move on after this. It is a bomb dropped right onto the Stock Exchange Building,” he wrote, referring to the building housing the Academy. “The institution is in ruins.”

The allegations against the man were first revealed as part of the #MeToo campaign exposing sexual misconduct, which began in Hollywood and went on to shake artistic, media and political circles in Sweden, one of the most gender equal countries in the world.

In March, Stockholm's public prosecutor's office announced that part of the investigation, into claims of alleged rapes and assaults between 2013 and 2015, had been called off as the statute of limitation had passed or due to lack of evidence.