Outrage over top author’s support for genocide

Courting controversy: (Left to right) George Bernard Shaw, Alice Walker and Peter Handke.

Can you separate a writer’s work from their political views? A furious attack just published in the Washington Post lambasts a Nobel Prize-winning author for defending war crimes in Bosnia.

“I covered the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, and I know what I saw.”

So begins a powerful new article by the well-known journalist Janine di Giovanni, attacking attempts to play down the conflict’s atrocities. Among others, she lambasts the Austrian author Peter Handke for suggesting that the Srebrenica massacre – in which Bosnian Serbs murdered 8,000 Muslims – never took place.

“I spoke with survivors not long after it happened,” she writes. “One young woman told me about her last glimpse of her father when she was 12 years old. He was wearing his jean jacket as he ran into the woods to escape the Serbian onslaught… She next saw him – and his jean jacket – years later in a mass grave.”

If Handke had met these people, she adds, “I wonder if he would still make such claims.”

Handke was friendly with the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who was accused of genocide by the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal. The writer even gave a eulogy at Milošević’s funeral.

So there was outrage when Handke was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. Hundreds of people protested in the streets of Stockholm on the night of the prize-giving ceremony in December, and several countries refused to send representatives.

Handke is not the first person to be hailed as a brilliant writer, but attacked for having despicable views. George Bernard Shaw attracted widespread criticism for reporting favourably on life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and praising the Russian leader despite evidence that he had ordered mass killings.

John Steinbeck, a hero of American liberals for writing novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, dismayed many of them by commenting positively about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He described US soldiers as “glorious knights” and poked fun at anti-war protestors.

More recently, Alice Walker – long considered a champion of minorities, thanks to her depictions of African Americans’ struggles in The Color Purple and other books – has been accused of endorsing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Though nobody would suggest that this makes her writing less skilful, some regard it as a reason not to read her books.

Can you separate a writer’s work from their political views?

Brought to book

Some say that a work of literature should be judged on its own merits, without thinking about the writer at all. Writers live in their imaginations, and many have a poor grasp of what is actually happening in the world. Novelists try to get inside their characters and see them as more than just good or bad, so it is not surprising that they sometimes show sympathy for people others abhor.

Others argue that the whole point of writing is to put forward a view of the world and persuade people to share it. This applies even if you are writing a novel or play or poem with no obvious political content. So if, like Peter Handke, you take the side of a mass murderer, anything you produce will be dangerously tainted. His books should be avoided.

You Decide

  1. Should the government ban books with shocking views?
  2. Would you read a book by Peter Handke if a friend told you it was brilliant?

Activities

  1. Design a medal for the best children’s author of the year.
  2. Think of someone you have studied in history who might be tried as a war criminal today. Write half a page summarising the case for the prosecution, and half a page summarising the case for the defence.

Some People Say...

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Everyone agrees that a work of art has a life independent of its creator. You can look at a painting or a poem without knowing who it is by, and still appreciate it. In fact, if you want to form an unbiased opinion, it is best to have no information about it all. So whether it has been created by a man or a woman, a criminal or a law-abiding citizen, does not matter.
What do we not know?
Whether it is possible to view a work objectively if we know that it has been done by someone we violently disapprove of. Whether it is fair – since people’s political views often change over time – to boycott John Steinbeck or Alice Walker’s early books because of opinions they voiced later on. Or whether George Bernard Shaw should be forgiven for being naïve.

Word Watch

Lambasts
Criticise severely.
Srebrenica
A town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The massacre took place in July 1995, during the Bosnian War, after United Nations peacekeepers failed to protect the inhabitants.
Bosnian Serbs
An ethnic minority who rebelled against the government when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Slobodan Milošević
As president of Serbia from 1989 to 1997, he supported the Bosnian Serbs. He died in prison in 2006 before his trial for war crimes was concluded.
George Bernard Shaw
Irish playwright (1856-1950) whose works include Pygmalion. He won the Nobel Prize in 1925.
Stalin
Josef Stalin (1879-1953), leader of the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to prison camps or murdered under his regime.
John Steinbeck
American novelist (1902-1968) whose books include Of Mice and Men. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Alice Walker
American novelist and poet (1944-). She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple.

Subjects

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