The row that has erupted over the choice of Austrian author Peter Handke for the 2019 Nobel prize for literature is instructive in understanding what actually the world’s most prestigious award is all about — it is as much an acknowledgement of literary merit, as the mainstreaming of a certain culture and politics by the West. Unlike the awards in science which can be evaluated objectively, the selection of the prizes for literature and peace (some would say, even economics), follows subjective criteria that reflect specific cultural and political trends. Globally, the context of the domination of extreme right-wing politics cannot be ignored in the choice of Handke, who has openly supported Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbian President was indicted in 1999 for deportation and genocide of ethnic Albanians during the Kosovo war.

That the branding of this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature as an “apologist for war crimes” comes just a year after the Swedish Academy had been hit by a murky sex scandal does little to restore the Nobel’s prestige. Among the 103 prize winners so far, there were 26 poets, 60 novelists, 12 playrights, three philosophers and two historians. If the elimination of those clearly on the extreme right or the left politics — Ezra Pound for his Nazi sympathies and Bertolt Brecht, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet for their left leanings — stands out, so does that of WH Auden who was ignored because of a reference he made to Nobel winner and Swedish economist Dag Hammarskjold’s “exceptionally aggressive super-ego”. During the Cold War, the Swedes picked staunch Soviet and Eastern European dissidents such as Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Jaroslav Seifret and poet Joseph Brodsky who was arrested in 1964 and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. This is especially noticeable because when the Nobel prize was first founded in 1901, many of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century — Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy to name a couple — were alive but overlooked.

Similarly, China’s “arrival” as a super power can be gauged by the selection of candidates in the last two decades. From dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, whose Nobel peace prize was officially described by the Chinese as a “desecration” and Gao Xingjian who won the literature prize in 2000 and gave up his Chinese citizenship in favour of France, the attention was turned to Mo Yan who has been embraced officially in China. Of course, some choices were excellent: Rabindranath Tagore, Pablo Neruda and Jean Paul Sartre (who refused it), to name a few. But overall, it is safe to say literary merit alone is not good enough to win the Nobel.