What is an English Teacher to Say About the Nobel Prize Now?

By Mr. Bruno

In the past, each year, I had looked forward to the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prestige the award has carried historically has been an indicator of superior literary talent and a monumental achievement for a lifetime of work dedicated to the craft. At this point, my anticipation and admiration for the award has been replaced by disappointment and disgust following a two years of confusion and questionable ethical decisions.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded in 2018 by the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, as numerous committee members stepped down, including the committee’s head, amidst a crisis caused by numerous, egregious accusations of sexual misconduct against a sitting committee member. The scandal seemingly tarnished the reputation of the current Swedish Academy.

In response to last year’s scandal, the Academy decided to take time to regroup and wait to give out two awards the next year. And so now  we have their response, one to Polish writer Olga Torarczuk for 2018 and one to Austrian novelist Peter Handke for 2019. The decision for Torarczuk was surprising but defendable. Unfortunately, however, the decision to honor Handke is unforgivable and inexcusable, and the follow-up to last year’s scandal should only disturb anyone even remotely interested in literature.

Robert Handke may be a good writer, but his defensive of genocide and support of Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, should have barred him from receiving the prize. In the 1990’s Handke publically denied the genocide being commited against the Bosnians. And then later in 2006, he gave a eulogy for Milosevic, who was complicit in the atrocity.

The message this Nobel Prize award sends is clear: the Swedish Academy is only concerned with aesthetics, beauty in abstraction alone, art for art’s sake. For the Academy to make this statement is for them to eschew any reasonable ethical criteria. Fundamentally, that is a mistake. How they could operate without considering basic morality and make a decision that removes an ethical criteria from the award is beyond me. Any award carrying cultural weight should not create distance from basic human decency since awards only truly exist and carry weight in a larger cultural context. Ignoring a writer’s association with genocide is disgraceful and seemingly nullifies its cultural significance. 

As a teacher of literature, disappointed as I may be in the decision, I am presented with an important learning opportunity to bring to my students. Prestige and name cannot and should not be trusted alone. It is up to us as members of the literary community to respond appropriately when established institutions fail to live up to their legacy. When they fail to uphold a standard of basic human decency, we must have the conversations about what the cultural consequences are. 

It may be going too far to conclude that no awards matter at all, because they can and do, especially when they carry a significant legacy and monetary prize–a million dollars is quite a lot of money. The Swedish Academy could have made other decisions that would have progressed the literary community, and given exposure and monetary support to the many other writers out there who are deeply engaged with the current of human progress. But they did not.