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Of power, prizes and persecution

  • Published at 02:14 pm November 19th, 2018
web-Olga Grjasnowa
Photo: Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

The cancellation of the Nobel Prize and #Metoo in literature

The cancellation of the Nobel Prize in literature had come as a rude shock to those who eagerly look forward to it every year. Author and Nobel academy member Katarina Frostenson’s spouse, Jean-Claude Arnault, was charged with allegations of sexual assault, resulting in the first deferral of the Nobel Prize since WWII. At the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018, a panel of esteemed authors, moderated by author Chandrahas Choudhury, discussed the implications of this year’s non-award and the effect of the #MeToo movement in the literary world. The authors in the session were Olga Grjasnowa, Richard Beard, Himanjali Sankar, Phillip Hensher and Ros Porter.

Phillip Hensher termed the deferral as the transfer of power away from the traditionally powerful, giving an effective voice to the weak. In fact, he is strongly in favour of abolition of all literary prizes for a period of five years in order to offset the culture of competition. According to him, literary prizes tend to reward writers for ‘good behaviour’, and much of that is determined by prestigious newspapers and critics, which in his opinion is an unhealthy agency of approval and power.

According to Ros Porter, #MeToo was an absolute necessity in the field of literature because the world had turned a blind eye to sexual harassment in writing, editing and publishing sectors, as they were thought to be radical, pragmatic and safe spaces for the weak. Chandrahas Choudhury described the cancellation as disillusionment, since before the Nobel Prize deferral, #MeToo was thought of being limited only to sensational areas such as politics, film and media. “As an Indian man, I feel embarrassed to be conducting a #MeToo session,” he remarked and asked for insight from fellow Indian author Himanjali Sankar. She believed that there had been no change in the power dynamics between men and women in the last decade, except a slight #MeToo awareness, arguing that men often tend to feel no remorse and are confident of impunity when charged with sexual harassment.

Richard Beard added that male authors often consider ‘being more attractive’ as a dividend of success, and can simply not believe that they have been turned down. Himanjali traced a similar problem in India - “They get so used to the power and attention that they just can’t imagine that there was no consent!” When the panel arrived upon the topic of the victims who spoke out, they agreed that the complaints were mostly retrospective - “That they can speak up now indicates that they have more power than they had before.”

Olga Grjasnowa spoke of the stereotypes prevalent in the German literary scene. Female authors are often given reviews based on how they look, event coverage pieces often focus on what kind of clothes they were wearing, and there is also the stereotype of women being able to write only coffee shop romance.

Beard also spoke of a response-hashtag #IWillDoBetter. As a response to #MeToo, this hashtag created a brief movement to promote egalitarian attitudes towards women and self-policing. The effectiveness of such movements is definitely open to debate, and Choudhury added that literature functions as a medium for starting debates. The panelists stressed on an environment that would make change possible.