Sweden’s Nobel Prize for Literature Picks Bring a Firestorm of Controversy

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As committees for the Nobel Prize reconvene after a year marked by fallout from a sex scandal, its award to two writers from Central Europe is creating a storm of controversy in some quarters of the literary establishment.

Most of the controversy has arisen due to Austrian writer Peter Handke winning one of the Nobel Prizes in Literature for 2019. While few can doubt Handke’s literary merit as a novelist, the author’s very public support for former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević has long earned him the ire of fellow writers and publishers. In recent years, authors like Salman Rushdie have gone so far as to call Handke’s comments on Milošević “moronic.”

Milošević remains one of the 20th Century’s most divisive leaders. During the 1990s, he was accused of spearheading a genocidal campaign against Bosnian Muslims; Milošević later died in a prison cell in the Hague while his trial for war crimes was still being conducted.

In 2006, Handke earned fierce criticism for speaking at Milošević’s funeral; Handke was also lambasted in the press and in publishing circles for publicly denying the genocide in Bosnia and Milošević’s role in crushing dissent during the Bosnian War.

For the Nobel committee, the issues surrounding Handke’s political beliefs appear to be moot points. Their focus in issuing the 2019 literature prize appears to fall on the literary merit of Handke’s work rather than on the substance of Handke’s character or political opinions.

But at a time when more and more institutions are striving to present themselves as politically correct in their policies, the Nobel committee’s decision to award Handke its highest honor isn’t likely to earn the favor of so-called “woke” culture.

But the committee’s choice of Handke for its latest prize also appears to be a slap in the face of individuals who survived Milošević’s brutal regime. Taking to social media sites like Twitter in droves, survivors of the Bosnian War said that they felt personally betrayed by the Nobel literature committee’s choice.

How the committee will react to its latest scandal is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that the prize will remain controversial for the foreseeable future. As a field, literature has always been marked by some degree of backbiting, but Peter Handke’s award this year will likely go down as one of the most divisive picks in the august body’s history. What 2020 will hold for the Nobel in Literature remains to be seen.

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