Literature's #MeToo | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 01, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:12 AM, June 01, 2018

Literature's #MeToo

Sexual harassment scandals in the world of books

The committee that decides the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature every year is in shambles. The Swedish Academy, rocked by a sexual harassment scandal against an individual close to the committee, announced at the beginning of May that it will not be awarding a prize this year because of the hit to its credibility. Instead, two prizes would be announced next year—a move that hasn't been taken since the 1940s.

In November of last year, 18 women came out with allegations of sexual harassment and assault against 71-year-old French photographer, Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of one of the members of the Academy, poet Katarina Frostenson. Together, the husband-wife duo was highly influential in Stockholm's literary scene and also ran Forum, a cultural club which received funding from the Swedish Academy.

Some of the assaults, which took place between 1996 and 2017, claim to have occurred during Nobel Prize banquets, of Forum, and in other Academy-owned or funded properties. One allegation was by the author, Gabriella Håkansson, who told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter of her 2007 encounter with Arnault at a party: “He didn't say many words before he grabbed me between my legs and did a p**** grab. It was like he was digging. Nothing motivated the incident, and there had been no flirtation or touch. I just found a hand up my crotch.” Some of the women said that they had informed the Academy but did not receive any response. Royalty too was not spared—one victim of Arnault is Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria in 2006. Arnault has also been accused of leaking the names of the winners of the highly anticipated (and bet on) Literature prize for years.

The Nobel Prize in Literature has often been controversial with its choice of laureates. With this latest scandal, critics have been calling for the prize to be overhauled altogether—adding that a secretive panel with unchanging members is no longer credible for deciding meritocracy. The 18 Academy members are appointed for life, even though one has not participated in any of its activities since 1989.

The outcome of the scandal has also been criticised. The head of the Swedish Academy (and its first woman leader), Sara Danius, commissioned an internal investigation and cut all ties with Arnault and Forum. But some members disagreed that Frostenson should also resign and Danius instead stepped down along with some of her supporters. Frostenson subsequently also resigned as did a handful of other members—totalling a third of the Academy. Protests in Stockholm reigned over the Academy's traditionally opaque doings and in support of Danius' decision. The public have lashed out at the fact that, yet again, women (two in this case) have paid the price for a man's actions. 

The incident culminated in the Nobel Foundation calling off this year's prize as it “presumes that the Swedish Academy will now put all its efforts into the task of restoring its credibility as a prize-awarding institution” and that “its extensive reform efforts and its future organisational structure must be characterised by greater openness towards the outside world.”

The reporter for Dagens Nyheter who undertook an investigation into the stories of 18 women accusing, then unnamed, Arnault, said that her interviewees had been scared of speaking out against a man in an influential position with the Swedish Academy, an important source of funding for writers in the country. One of the women said, “[Arnault] sees himself as the nineteenth member of the Academy”. The writers thought they might never get published again in Sweden, underlining the power even a man on the sidelines of the committee holds over the entire industry.

Just like in Hollywood, Arnault's behaviour had been an open secret for years within the writing community. What this scandal and others have taught the world is that other's silence has aided and abetted sexual predators who continue to harass without fear of punishment or repercussions. Better late than never, victims in the world of books have been coming forward in light of the larger #MeToo movement.

Earlier in May, Junot Díaz, the Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was accused of forcibly kissing a young graduate student and misogynistic and verbally abusive behaviour towards other women. Díaz was chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board (he stepped down following the revelations) and is professor of creative writing at MIT.

Less than a month before these accusations came out, he had written a much-lauded essay in The New Yorker about being raped at the age of eight. Díaz wrote about not being able to tell anyone about the sexual abuse he had suffered in his own childhood for the longest time and how the trauma he suffered led to unhealthy romantic relationships involving abuse and infidelity. His primary accuser, author Zinzi Clemmons, however, said that she believed he wrote about this in an attempt to pre-empt accusations coming his way.

Other men called out for harassment, abuse, and assault over the past year include James Dashner, author of the popular dystopian series The Maze Runner and Jay Asher, the author of the bestseller, Thirteen Reasons Why.

At the Stockholm Forum for Gender Equality in April, award-winning Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, shared how she was sexually assaulted at seventeen by a “big man in media”. As a young writer, she had gone to him for help for promoting a book of poems but he began assaulting and sexually molesting her.

Following the Díaz scandal, memoirist and poet, Mary Karr, spoke out about the abuse she suffered while dating the celebrated writer, David Foster Wallace, in the 90s. This however was already out in the open as Wallace's biographer had first-headedly witnessed these incidents but only briefly described them in his book. Regardless, Wallace's reputation as a literary giant (he died in 2008) remains untarnished.

These events point to men abusing their power and status to take advantage of female peers and young writers trying to make it in a male-dominated literary world. While the women suffer from consequences later in their lives whether or not they report their abuse, the men get away with little impact on their personal or professional lives. They are venerated as literary giants regardless of their personal reputation while the women fall by the wayside, their literary accomplishments marginalised, their stories ignored.

Following the #MeToo movement, women working in book publishing have spoken out about experiencing harassment from their superiors, including authors and editors. Recent allegations against authors have led to scrapped book deals, boycotts of authors and bookstores, and as with Díaz—a public confronting at writers' conferences. 

Closer to home, Korean poet Choi Young-mi wrote an accusation in a poem titled “Monster” in December 2017:

Don't sit next to En

The poet 'K' advised me, a literary novice

He touches young women whenever he sees one

A second stanza goes:

Forgot K's advice and sat next to En

Me too

The silk blouse borrowed from my sister got rumpled

Initially overlooked, but with Korea's #MeToo movement gaining momentum, Choi's exposing of the sexual harassment prevalent in the literary scene soon gained acknowledgement while keeping the identity of “En” still undisclosed. Soon after, the press outed Ko Un, Korea's national poet, as the repeat offender. The repercussions were swift—celebratory distinctions were taken down and his poetry was removed from school textbooks—as has been the case for many other men called out since the #MeToo movement. As historical precedent shows, before #MeToo, abusers often acted with impunity without public acknowledgement and such resistance by the victims would have been silenced.

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