Peter Handke Nobel Prize controversy: Literature can’t be judged on esthetics alone



Demonstrators protest the awarding of the 2019 Nobel literature prize to Peter Handke in Stockholm, in December 2019.
Stina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via AP

Ervin Malakaj, University of British Columbia

Austrian writer Peter Handke received the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. The award is for “a writer’s life work,” and Handke has written novels, travelogues, theatre plays, screenplays and poetry.

Hundreds protested the award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall. This was not an isolated protest.

Literature laureate 2019 Peter Handke gives his speech during the Nobel banquet at Stockholm City Hall, on Dec. 10, 2019.
Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency via AP

The announcement of the award generated public uproar.

Handke’s critics say some of his published work has advanced and fuelled genocide apologetics and they point to his choice to speak at the 2006 funeral of Serbian ethno-nationalist politician Slobodan Milošević. When Milošević died, he was on trial facing 66 charges including for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The controversy has spurred long-standing debates about where stories come from, who is responsible for them and what it means as a writer to bear witness to truth — and also, which persons or institutions have the authority to do so.

These events unfolded at a time of rising ethnonationalism across Europe.

Sustained dissent

Handke’s controversial book, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (translated from German), attracted particular criticism.

The publisher of the English-language 1997 translation describes the book on its jacket as both a “sensitive and nuanced meditative travelogue through Serbia,” and a “scathing criticism of western war reporting.”

In the book, Handke writes: “all too many of the reporters on Bosnia and on the war there … are not only proud chroniclers, but false ones.” In his search for a “common remembering” he writes: “To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.”

Handke’s Nobel nomination particularly inflamed journalists and survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in July 1995, during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Various intellectuals, as well as the broader public voiced their dissent about Handke receiving the award on Twitter following the award announcement.

The bigger context is that some perpetrators denied findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (sometimes referred to as the Hague Tribunal, based in The Hague, Netherlands) — and the tribunal documented atrocious strategies to conceal crimes, such as moving mass graves. Denials of the Srebrenica genocide continue today.

Media reported that Emir Suljagić, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocide who wrote Postcards from the Grave, said after the announcement of Handke’s award: “I am in Stockholm to protest the award being given to a man who negates my suffering and the suffering of so many others.”

During a press conference in December, Handke did not provide direct answers to questions about the controversy.

Committee and academy defend decision

In an Oct. 10, 2019, press release, the Swedish Academy announced it had awarded Handke the Nobel for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Following the protests and uproar, both Swedish Academy and Nobel Committee for Literature members defended the decision.

Two academy members wrote in a Swedish newspaper that Handke had “definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues,” but added: “The Swedish Academy has obviously not intended to reward a war criminal and denier of war crimes or genocide.”

In an op-ed, writing as an individual, one of the members of the committee said Handke in his writing was “radically unpolitical,” according to a story from Agence France-Presse. British Broadcasting Corp. reported that another member said: “When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right.”

Suhrkamp Verlag, Handke’s publisher, circulated a defence of his work following the controversy, but did not release it publicly, journalist Peter Maass wrote in The Intercept.

Many statements in defence of the award echo earlier French and British 20th century literary criticism.

Evaluating the text’s language alone?

The French philosopher Roland Barthes’s influential 1967 essayThe Death of the Author” served to elevate literary work and its language. Barthes wrote: “It is language which speaks, not the author.”

For French philosopher Michel Foucault, the author is a kind of scribe who commits language to paper. The implication is that the author is writing down the realities of the world outside. In his view, “the function of the author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society” — meaning, ideas and messaging, as he elaborated in his 1969 essay “What is an Author?

Before them, T.S. Eliot proclaimed in 1919 that writing “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

As feminist literary scholar Cheryl Walker has noted, independence-of-the-text critiques have to a certain extent helped “liberate the text for multiple uses,” like re-reading canonical texts from critical feminist perspectives.

But such critiques have also been at odds with literary traditions on the margins.

Historically, the significance of lived personal and collective experiences have been central features of texts by women, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, queer or transgender writers.

These literatures, their readers and their institutions of criticism have long resisted calls to separate author, text and political or social impact.
They have have asserted either that the personal is political or that perspective is situational — and rejected the notion that literary work can considered unpolitical.

Award fuelled ethnonationalist politics

Critics of Handke’s receipt of the Nobel award challenge the notion that Handke’s literary work can be evaluated apart from its political implications.

Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon has questioned what he calls the academy’s belief in a “literature safe from the infelicities of history and actualities of human life and death.”

PEN America issued a statement decrying the academy’s support for Handke, saying the body is “dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.”

Among the alarming developments in the Handke affair has been the news that the award fuelled far-right ethnonationalist sympathies.

How or if the Swedish Academy will respond to these developments as the public demands it approach the award more cautiously remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that it will rescind Handke’s award.

But the academy is implicated in this affair no matter what.The Conversation

Ervin Malakaj, Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize for Literature Resignations


In recent times the Nobel Prize for Literature has been plagued by controversy – the link below is to an article that takes a look at the fairly recent resignations of members of the committee.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/02/nobel-prize-for-literature-hit-by-fresh-round-of-resignations

More on Peter Handke Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature


The link below is to another article reporting on the fallout from Peter Handke’s win of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/21/swedish-academy-defends-peter-handkes-controversial-nobel-win

Peter Handke Reacts to Criticism of His Nobel Prize for Literature Win


The link below is to an article reporting on the reaction of Peter Handke to criticism of his winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/16/peter-handke-hits-out-at-criticism-of-nobel-win

Nobel Prize: Milosevic ‘apologist’ award serves as a reminder that reform of the academy runs slowly


Kaley Kramer, Sheffield Hallam University

Fresh from the controversy of having to “postpone” awarding the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, due to a series of scandals that left the prize committee in disarray, the Swedish Academy – which gives out the literature prize – courted controversy again, naming Austrian novelist Peter Handke, as its laureate for 2019.

Over the past two decades, Handke has come in for savage criticism for his support for Serbia in the Balkans War in the 1990s and for delivering a eulogy at the funeral of convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in 2006. In the same year, he withdrew his nomination for the Heinrich Heine prize before it could be revoked by politicians. There were also protests in Oslo after he was awarded the Ibsen Prize in 2014.

Less controversial, is the decision to award the delayed 2018 prize to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. She is the 16th woman and the fifth Polish writer to be named as a literature laureate. The judges described her as “a writer preoccupied by local life … but looking at earth from above … her work is full of wit and cunning.”

The pair receive 9m Swedish krona (£746,678), which – the judges confirmed – represents the full amount for each year’s prize money.

Scandal strikes

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been mired in controversy for two years after several members of the committee resigned in 2018 following allegations of financial and sexual misconduct. French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault – whose wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, was a committee member, was accused of rape in 2017 and was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2018. His wife left the academy earlier this year after allegations of conflict of interest and the leaking of Nobel winners’ names.




Read more:
Nobel Prize crisis: flurry of withdrawals rocking Swedish Academy’s showpiece literature award


At the time, the executive director of the Nobel Foundation, Lars Heikensten, said is was important the Swedish Academy “quickly solves their problems. If they manage to do that in a way that restores confidence, they will be able to continue to award the Nobel Prize in Literature”.

Whether or not the academy has heeded the implied threat in Heikensten’s words, it seems quite ambitious to demand a “quick” solution. Over the year, several additional points of needed reform have been suggested, from revising the statutes to reconsidering the eligibility criteria for the award.

Lofty ideals and purity of spirit

The Nobel Prize in Literature is one of the more mysterious awards. According to the will of the founder, Alfred Nobel, the prize is awarded to writers who “have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

This has been interpreted since in different ways. French poet Sully Prudhomme, who won the first literature Nobel in 1901, was awarded for his poetry’s “lofty idealism”, while Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson won in 1903 for “the rare purity of [his poetry’s] spirit”. The following year, French writer Frédéric Mistral was awarded for “fresh originality and true inspiration”. The first female literature laureate, Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (1909), was given the prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”.

Quite what Nobel meant by an “ideal direction” has never been decisively stated and the academy has, over time, selected and discounted work depending on a very fluid consensus on how the term might be understood and applied.

Most recently, Tokarczuk was awarded for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. Meanwhile, the judges said Handke won “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”.

An ‘ideal direction’

The “ideal direction” that the prize should take, particularly after 2018, has been less ambiguous. As of yesterday, only 15 of 116 literature laureates have been women. And the desire for a “global distribution” of prize winners is equally out of step with the actual awards – winners from the global North overwhelmingly dominate the list of laureates, as do white writers. Works written in English have also been dominant – 29 laureates published their work in English and the next most awarded language is French at 14.

Things have changed, slowly, since the 1980s. Laureates have become more diverse in nationality and language, while eight of the 15 female laureates were awarded between 1991 and 2015.

The need for reform of the academy and Nobel prize judging had been building for some time. The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by Gustav III, is comprised of 18 members who were until 2018 elected for life and were not permitted to resign their position. There had, however, been a number of withdrawals – in 1989, two members quit the academy after it refused to condemn Iran after it issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. In 2005, academy member Knut Ahnlund quit in protest at the decision to give the 2004 prize to Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek whose work, he said, was “static and completely engulfed in cliché”.

Academy members can now voluntarily resign, which means that the seats of those who have withdrawn can be filled with new members. This will at least ensure regular injections of fresh blood and new energy. But real reform in the literary prize industry, if this year’s selection for the Nobel Prize is any indication, remains slow – and what is meant by “reform” is as vague as Nobel’s “ideal direction”.The Conversation

Kaley Kramer, Deputy Head of English/Principal Lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More on the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature


The links below are to further articles concerning the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/10/11/the-nobel-prize-in-literature-winners-for-2018-and-2019-are-here/
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/10/11/140740/tokarczuk-handke-awarded-nobel-prize-in-literature/
https://bookriot.com/2019/10/10/2018-and-2019-nobel-prize-literature-winners-announced/

2018 & 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature


The links below are to articles reporting on the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, including articles explaining why two were awarded this year (one for last year) and none last year.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/05/nobel-prize-for-literature-2019-diversity
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/nobel-prize-for-literature-to-be-awarded-twice-after-sexual-assault-scandal

The links below are to articles reporting on the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/live/2019/oct/10/nobel-prize-in-literature-2019-two-laureates-to-be-named-live
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/peter-handke-an-adversarial-talent-and-controversial-nobel-laureate
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/olga-tokarczuk-the-dreadlocked-feminist-winner-the-nobel-needed
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/nobel-prizes-in-literature-olga-tokarczuk-peter-handke-2019-2018

Nobel Prize for Literature


The link below is to an article that looks at the awarding of two Nobel Prizes for Literature (2018 and 2019) this year in the wake of last year’s scandal.

For more visit:
https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/79431-after-changes-the-nobel-prize-for-literature-returns.html

2018 Nobel Prize for Literature News


The link below is to an article with further reporting on the canceling of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/books/review/nobel-prize-literature-critics-discussion.html

Nobel Prize for Literature Suspension


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the suspension of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/29/nobel-prize-for-literature-could-be-suspended-for-more-than-a-year