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Peter Handke's Nobel Literature win sparks tension in literary circles

With every literature prize comes some contention over which texts are most worthy of celebration. But rather than a war over words, this awards season was dominated by controversy over a writer's moral character.

Win is 'endorsement of literary merit, never an endorsement of political view,' says Swedish Academy's head

Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel laureate in literature, speaks at a press conference at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on Friday. (Anders Wiklund/TT/Associated Press)

With every literature prize comes some contention over which texts are most worthy of celebration. But rather than a war over words, this awards season was dominated by controversy over a writer's moral character.

Protests are planned in Sweden's capital on Tuesday as Nobel Literature Prize laureate Peter Handke collects his award in the face of widespread criticism over his stance on the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Handke's Nobel win in October triggered a flood of condemnation accusing the Austrian author of being an apologist for war criminals in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict.

The scandal has reverberated across the literary world, prompting Canadian prize juries to wrestle with how to weigh an author's artistic achievements against their political views.

Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, who served on the jury for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize, has been one of Handke's most vocal detractors, writing an October op-ed in the New York Times calling the author "The Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists."

"[The Nobel Committee] effectively endorsed his genocide denial while pretending that it doesn't matter," Hemon said in an interview.

Despite a United Nations court ruling to the contrary, Handke has denied that genocide took place in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslims were massacred by Serb soldiers in 1995. He also spoke at the 2006 funeral of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack while facing war crimes charges in The Hague.

Handke refused to address the backlash or his beliefs at a news conference last week, dismissing reporters' questions as "empty and ignorant."

The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel literature laureate, said the prize body found that none of Handke's works concerning Yugoslavia represent an "anti-humanitarian attitude," adding that his comments fall within the bounds of "freedom of opinion" and "freedom of the arts."

"The prize is always an endorsement of literary merit, never an endorsement of political view," Mats Malm said in a statement.

"The relationship between art and person has constantly been an issue of disagreement, yet the Academy is obliged to appoint laureates based on literary merit within the limits mentioned above."

In Hemon's view, this defence rests on a false distinction between esthetics — or an author's artistic approach — and politics.

Writing is not an autotelic exercise that has no meaning beyond the page, he said. Rather, literature always reaches outwards, engaging readers in a conversation that cannot be removed from the world in which we live.

"[Literature] should not be reduced to politics, obviously, because human experience is more than politics," he said. "But also, human experience is never without politics."

This renders every literature prize an "ethical judgment," Hemon said. But he drew a distinction between lifetime writing awards like the Nobel, which must account for the way a writer exists in the world, and prizes for individual works.

'Can't help but consider a writer's larger profile'

Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch said an author's political proclivities shouldn't factor into their eligibility for the $100,000 honour, emphasizing that each work must stand on its own.

But Canadian writer Randy Boyagoda, who chaired this year's Giller jury, said it's not always so easy to separate the writer from what's on the page.

"I think you can't help but consider a writer's larger profile, career, commitments, but they needn't be the decisive factor, unless they're decisive to how the writer works things out," said Boyagoda.

"We have to all maybe accept our historical moment, and be aware of the pressures that are on us ... but then not be fully captive to those pressures in what we love and prize."

Representatives of the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide pose with an image of 2019 Nobel Literature laureate Peter Handke during a protest in front of Sweden's embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in November. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Vancouver-based novelist and poet Ian Williams, who won the Giller last month for Reproduction, said moral righteousness is not a prerequisite to be a brilliant writer, but the literary community has to uphold certain standards to prevent the abuse of others.

"What we don't want to do is sort of preserve environments where people can continue to be evil," said Williams, who is also a Griffin Poetry Prize trustee and judged the 2018 award.

"If it means sort of destroying entire systems in order to protect other people, I think that's important."

Dessa Bayrock, a PhD student at Carleton University who studies Canadian literature awards, noted that these systems have material consequences, including prize money, a bump in book sales and increased exposure for the author.

"Granting an award to literature isn't an action that takes place in a vacuum," said Bayrock.

"By celebrating authors whose politics are ethically or morally transgressive, prize culture does a disservice to vulnerable populations who are targeted by these politics."

While it may seem that literature prizes are becoming more polarized, Bayrock said juries have long been influenced by a politics so dominant it can seem invisible — the tastes of the largely white, male and Euro-centric cultural elite.

"That is a sort of politics in and of itself, and one that tends to reproduce itself fairly easily, because those are the figures that have largely run these prizing formulations since their inception."

The Swedish Academy brought in five external members to help adjudicate the 2018 and 2019 literature laureates on the heels of a sexual-misconduct scandal at the awards body that saw the prize suspended last year.

Two external members have since resigned, one in protest of Handke's win. Peter Englund, the academy's former permanent secretary who returned as a current member earlier this year, told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter he would not participate in this year's ceremonies because "to celebrate Peter Handke's Nobel prize would be gross hypocrisy on my part."

The Nobel Prize for Literature is among the most prestigious literary awards on the planet, but the Swedish Academy, which chooses the annual honour, has been plagued by controversy in the past few years. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

In the wake of Handke's selection, PEN Canada joined its U.S. and international counterparts in issuing a statement that denounced the decision as "baffling and deeply regrettable," particularly in light of the academy's promised reforms.

In an interview, PEN Canada executive director Brendan de Caires said the organization for the most part prefers to stay out of the awards fray. But in this case, the non-profit felt the author's views fell outside of the realm of writers' right to freedom of expression and into "extremely dangerous territory."

Still, he stood up for the prerogative of prize juries to reward politically contentious writing, noting that such decisions have often been used to amplify dissidents speaking out against authoritarian regimes.

Having served on prize juries, de Caires acknowledged that such judgments can be difficult to arbitrate.

"I would say there's an esthetic question, which juries can decide on. There's a political question, which is relevant, but not decisive. But beyond that, there's an ethical question, and I think that's the one that's most important here," said de Caires.

"But who wants to be weighing in on all three levels every time a prize is given?"

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