Peter Handke was one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and by now everyone knows, as the Swedish Academy did, that he supported Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader accused of genocide. My intention here is not to discuss whether Handke is a man who approves of genocide or not, but to question the basis on which literary prizes are awarded. Are they given for literary merit, or for the personal merit of the author? Or to put it another way: are prizes given for the value of the work of art, or for the character of the artist? This question is important not only for literature but more broadly for our entire civilisation.
My own political position should be irrelevant, but in case anyone doubts, let me begin by affirming that I condemn the genocide in Bosnia by the Bosnian Serbian forces, and have no sympathy whatever with Milosevic. Moreover, I suspect that I would greatly dislike Handke as a person. But does the fact that he spoke at Milosevic’s funeral disqualify him for a literary prize? Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American fiction writer, thinks so. So does Adnan Mahmutovic, the Bosnian-Swedish fiction writer. I admire the work of both men, and in addition know Adnan Mahmutovic, and like and respect him as a person. And it’s not hard to see why the prize upset them. But neither in Hemon’s article condemning the award, ‘The Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists’ (New York Times, October 15, 2019), nor in Mahmutovic’s ‘Surprised by Handke’ in World Literature Today, does either writer condemn Handke on aesthetic grounds. In fact Mahmutovic explicitly declares that he considers Handke’s early work estimable. Hemon’s only real comment on the quality of Handke’s writing is that anyone who can make such fatuous remarks as the Austrian did at the funeral of Milosevic could have nothing of value to say. I think that’s questionable. We can all think of great artists who have on occasion been utterly foolish. Would we condemn all of Conrad’s work, because he used racial epithets? Or all of Dostoyevsky’s because he supported the Orthodox Church, which was regarded by the liberals of his time as a reactionary institution?
The broader question is this: if we expect our artists to be morally perfect, how many of them will survive? And if prizes are to be awarded on the basis of the moral characters of the artists, rather than on the quality of the writing itself, how good is the writing going to be? Is it possible for a flawed human being to create a sublime work of art? The examples of Caravaggio, of Picasso, of Wagner and Virginia Woolf all seem to indicate that it is. If the author in the work of art itself incites readers to hate crimes, then it seems to me that clearly the work has to be condemned. On the other hand, if the author is suspected of being fallible, or even proven to be fallible, that’s another matter.
If in future people will only be able to win prizes after having passed a kind of test of moral purity—which of course the other Nobel winner this year, Olga Tokarczuk manages easily, as a vegan feminist who has condemned her own country, Poland, for its colonial past (!)—then literary prizes henceforth are nothing but popularity contests, decided by a certain progressive-liberal-woke-what-have-you elite. And that does indeed appear to happening, in nearly all British and American prizes. But the Swedish Academy can hardly be accused of political bias, since one of the winners was so leftist. Rather, it appears that they were blind to the politics of the nominees. Isn’t that a good thing? To me it is.