The Swedish Academy (= Svenska Akademien in Swedish) is a body of 18 Swedish savants, entrusted with the prestigious yearly task of selecting the Nobel Prize winner for literature. It presents itself (in its pamphlets and on the website as an institution most staid and serene, an Academy that - after some regrettable troubles in the 19th century - was "revitalized and modernized" during the early 1900's and whose "developments followed the same course during the remainder of the twentieth century".

On closer inspection this hardly seems to be the whole truth. During the last few decades the Swedish Academy has had more than its share of incidents bordering to scandal, and it is still living in a state of uneasiness, if not turmoil.

Founding king shot at masquerade ball

The Swedish Academy was founded by King Gustav III on April 5th 1786. Gustav III is known in Swedish history as a many-faceted, intelligent and culturally active autocrat, whose life was ended in 1792 by a bullet from a discontented aristocrat. The assassination took place at a masquerade ball in the Stockholm Opera-house and has later been set to music by Giuseppe Verdi, in his opera Un ballo in maschera, of 1859.

The statutes of the Academy, resembling the rules of the French Academy, were written by the Francophile King Gustav III himself. The stated purpose of the Swedish Academy was to contribute to cultural stability and promote good taste, as well as to produce a grammar and a dictionary of the Swedish language. The work on the dictionary is still in progress, at a leisurely average pace of some 0.088 alphabet letters a year. After 216 years of hard work, the letters T, U, V, X, Y, Z, Å, Ä and Ö still remain to be covered.

Each of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy is appointed for life. New members, replacing the deceased, are elected by secret ballot among the living members. Their appointment is confirmed by the King of Sweden.

Sudden elevation

After a period of varying fortunes, this rather local and provincial Scandinavian Academy was in 1896 suddenly elevated to international status by the will of the Swedish dynamite-millionaire Alfred Nobel. Nobel's will states that the "Academy in Stockholm" shall be responsible for awarding a yearly prize in literature to a person who "shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction".

A matter of taste

The phrase "in an ideal direction" in Nobel's will is clearly open to many interpretations. A close friend of Alfred Nobel's, Gustaf Mittag-Leffler, is reported to have stated that Nobel "was an Anarchist; by 'ideal direction' he meant taking a polemical or critical stance toward religion, monarchy, marriage and the social order in general". This has hardly been the preferred interpretation by the Swedish Academy, which has awarded the Prize mainly for what it has perceived as the literary eminence of the laureates, hardly for their ideological radicalism. The Swedish Academy's choice of Nobel Prize laureates is by definition a matter of taste. That this choice is often criticized, is only to be expected, as with any attempt at esthetic judgment.

Lack of judgment leads to hara-kiri

A quite different matter is entering into a premeditated conflict of interest. In 1974 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in literature to two Swedish authors, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Both were highly regarded men of literature, at least nationally and to some extent internationally.

The choice of the 1974 laureates would hardly have raised many eyebrows, but for one thing - both happened to be members of the Swedish Academy. The only excuse that the Academy could offer for this stupendous exercise in bad judgment, was that "Johnson and Martinson were not present when the vote was taken".

The reactions that followed were not kind to the two laureates, nor to the Swedish Academy itself, whose credibility was very much at stake. Harry Martinson became so depressed by the barrage of criticism, that four years later he committed suicide by hara-kiri - he cut his belly open with a pair of scissors and bled to death.

Resignation impossible

In 1989 the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa of death against the British-Pakistani novelist Salman Rushdie, for allegedly blasphemous passages in his novel "The Satanic Verses" - all Muslims were urged to kill Rushdie on sight. Predictably, this caused international protests. Several members of the Swedish Academy urged the Academy to issue a strong public statement against the Ayatollah, like many similar cultural organizations around the world had done. However, a majority of the members of the Academy, lead by its Permanent Secretary at the time, Sture Allén, opposed the idea, on the grounds that taking sides against Iran would compromise the political impartiality of the Swedish Academy.

Disgusted by such lack of spine, three members - Lars Gyllensten, Kerstin Ekman and Werner Aspenström - resigned from the Swedish Academy in protest. However, curiously enough, it turned out to be quite impossible to quit the Swedish Academy. The members are appointed for life and in the statutes there is no procedure for resigning. As a result, the three "resignees" are still full members (Aspenström has subsequently died), but they are "not taking part of the work of the Academy", as the official member list of the Swedish Academy euphemistically states.

Dwindling number of active members

One more member, Knut Ahnlund, has subsequently given himself the status of "not taking part in the work of the Academy", i.e. resigned. In his case the protest concerned the election of a new member, Horace Engdahl, whom Ahnlund considered being a mere intellectual lightweight, not at all worthy of membership in the Academy. In spite of this, Horace Engdahl has subsequently risen to the prestigious post of Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

The many "not-taking-part-in-the-work"-cases, and the fact that some members have reached very old age, has brought the number of active members down to an uncomfortably low level. The decision to award the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature to V. S. Naipaul was taken by merely 12 members, out of the 18 members on the official list of the Swedish Academy. Death of the oldest members - possibly leading to younger replacements - may in time remedy the situation.

The Exchange Building

The Swedish Academy has its offices and meeting rooms in Börshuset (= the Exchange Building) at the Stortorget square in the middle of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) of Stockholm.


Lars Gyllensten: Minnen, bara minnen (Stockholm 2000)
The Swedish Academy website:
Swedish newspapers: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Expressen

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