For the general public, literary prizes are not of particular importance. They boost sales for nominees and winners, and increase public knowledge of certain new releases. Of course, the judges of such literary prizes, and the institutions they represent, can use their elevated position to promote authors and works which inspire progressiveness, inclusivity, empathy, and unrepresented voices. This year the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the world’s most respected and renowned literary prizes, chose not to do so.
By awarding the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke, the Swedish Academy are by default giving merit and support to a writer who has controversially supported the Serb campaign during the Balkan War and fall of Yugoslavia. The Austrian playwright, publically supported former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milošević during his UN tribunal trial for war crimes, and performed a eulogy at his funeral in 2006.
Swedish Academy member Mats Malm has reported that the Prize is awarded on “literary and aesthetic ground. It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations”. Politics aside, to reward an €825,000 prize (and the literary canonisation that goes with it) to someone who has publically declared that the Bosnians massacred each other and denied the Srebrenica genocide is shameful. It promotes a un-humanitarian agenda of exclusion.
The news has been received with criticism by leaders of countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, and other literary institutions such as PEN America.
Some of the work which Handke has been awarded the Nobel Prize for, an award received by the likes of Hemingway and Beckett, include A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, a travelogue which portrays Serbia as the victim of the Yugoslav Wars.
The Mothers of Srebrenica, an activist group based in the Netherlands who represent the 6,000 survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, have called for this award to be revoked. Handke, in response to winning, has commented: “I feel a strange kind of freedom, I don’t know, a freedom, which is not the truth, as if I were innocent.”
In my opinion, it is more than controversial to publicly reward Handke with such prestige: no literary merit can undo his vocal atrocities.
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