Fuss about the International Literature Prize: rules for literary juries?

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Written By Maya Cantina

How should aesthetic categories relate to identity politics? A somewhat baffled examination of the literary price dispute – and a suggestion.

The building of the House of World Cultures in Berlin

Don’t we need at least one symposium now? The House of World Cultures in Berlin Photo: Lucas Vallecillos/VW Pics/Redux/laif

First of all: it remains a case of explanation against explanation. Anyone who takes the time to look at all aspects of the current situation Uproar about the International Literature Prize Talking can lead to varied and interesting hours. But he cannot reveal afterwards what it really was like.

Juliane Liebert and Ronya Othmann stand by theirs, even in public interviews Time from May 16, according to which a white author shortlisted for the 2023 prize was replaced by a black author solely for non-literary reasons, namely purely identity politics, and you can easily confirm that.

There are emails supporting their reading, and the somewhat strange nature of the circumstances – why haven’t they cleared this up internally, why are they turning to the public so late – they can very well resolve it too.

Other jury members, on the other hand, tell you just as plausibly on the phone that aesthetic categories were central throughout the jury meeting, and also that the sentence that caused much outrage – “You as a white woman have nothing to say here” – was not heard at all . Instead, an impassioned debate asked whether those unaffected can really understand all experiences of discrimination. This was not intended as an attempt to exclude him from the debate.

The latter is a position that the House of World Cultures (HKW), which organizes the prize, also expresses in a public statement. Also in telephone conversations you can be sure that the HKW employees who listened during the jury meeting (of course without voting rights) did not hear the verdict.

In the heat of battle

What now? Meetings of literary juries mean communication between the attendees who are under high pressure to make decisions. For them, it’s not just about what you say, but also about how you say it, with what attitude and tone. Did the arguments of Juliane Liebert and Ronya Othmann, put forward in the heat of the moment, seem all too clear? Was it perhaps not communicated transparently enough that the first vote, the result of which was changed, was only a basis for discussion, as other jury members indicate?

Or the other way around: Do the other jury members and HKW employees eliminate possible ambivalence and ambiguity in their view of things in order to secure this year’s International Literature Prize, the shortlist of which will be announced next week?

This is all speculation. Only one thing is clear: the truth is definitely not in the middle. But to be honest, as a literary journalist you are not a truth commission.

A cool, discourse-analytic view of the public debate as a result of the scandal does not help either. The defenders of the prize do not directly challenge the question of the role of identity politics in literary prizes, but in a completely different area: Liebert and Othmann violated the fundamental rules of the literary jury system with their whistleblowing.

In short, at first it was not even possible to agree on what point there should be a difference of opinion. (There are also far-right positions that want to exploit the debate and expose racism against whites, but this is all too transparent; to be on the safe side, it should be explicitly stated here that Liebert and Othmann distance themselves from this.)

Start-up or normal process?

Despite all the excitement, it’s almost funny that there is absolutely nothing offensive based on the outcome of the jury interview. Of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr As a prize winner, everyone involved agrees, expressly for aesthetic reasons. Everyone can live with the fact that the shortlist will eventually be expanded from six to eight authors.

However, there is controversy as to why Liebert and Othmann were not further considered after just one year on the jury, when there are also four other members on it this year. Start-up or normal process? Opinions differ here.

What is also striking is how much everyone involved emphatically emphasizes that aesthetic categories must be absolutely central. They were last year too, we are assured, and there is talk of deep poetic discussions.

What comes to mind is that, after their decisions, the jury of the Berlin Theatertreffen allowed themselves to be publicly confronted by activist groups with views according to which the concept of high culture should in any case be broken down in favor of social openings. But no one has heard of such approaches around the International Prize for Literature – whatever may have happened in the specific case.

What does ‘urgency’ mean?

But how exactly do aesthetic and identity politics relate to such a distinction? What does the category ‘urgency’ mean that should also be taken into account? In the course of the current debate the suggestion was heard that the HKW could organize a symposium on all these questions. Maybe that’s a good idea. And perhaps it would also be good in terms of transparency if the jury opened itself up to public discussion after its decision and justified its selection, as the Theatertreffen jury does, for example.

However, that would require the public to treat these awards differently. So far, the media has bombarded the award winner with portraits and has not questioned the decision-making process further. Why not?

From the jury’s point of view, there are undoubtedly good reasons for allowing internal jury debates to remain internal. But the great attention that Juliane Liebert and Ronya Othmann generated around the selection process would be an indication that the jury as a black box is no longer relevant from the perspective of the audience and the authors under negotiation. Even if you don’t have a definitive idea of ​​how to deal with it yet, you should notice it.

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