If an author’s perspective of the world is condemned, then literary works quickly become culturally meaningless. Art is often an expression of its creator. So, when an author can no longer express their beliefs in the books they write, or even alongside them, can it really be considered art?
Kamila Shamsie was recently stripped of the Nelly Shah book prize due to her ongoing support for anti-Israel movement Boycott, Diverstment, Sanctions (BDS). The German jury had originally decided that the British-Pakistani writer would win the prize, praising the way her work was “building bridges between societies”. It was only upon further review that the panel discovered her political views. In response to her support for the BDS movement, it was decided that she would be stripped of the award altogether.
“With its vote for the British writer Kamila Shamsie… the jury honoured the author’s outstanding literary work,” the Dortmund panel said. However, just days later, the panel released a statement highlighting that Shamsie’s political views “contrast with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures. The jury regrets the situation in every respect.”
It is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ play Antigone, exploring a clash between society, family and faith amongst British Muslims
The Nelly Sachs prize is worth £13,000, with its purpose to identify work that encourages tolerance, reconciliation and improving cultural relations. Surely then, if the book does exactly this, then the personal views of the author should not be judged as part of this criteria.
What’s worse is that the book does not touch on the issue in any great depth. Her last novel, Home Fire is interesting, poignant and strangely prophetic. It is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ play Antigone, exploring a clash between society, family and faith amongst British Muslims. One central character, a westernised Muslim man who becomes the Home Secretary, spookily anticipates the rise of Tory cabinet minister Sajid Javid. The book rightfully brought her many accolades.
Authors do not commit crimes by having an opinion separate from their literary work and certainly should not be condemned for it. Ernest Hemmingway’s views as a young journalist bled into his work in an understated style and had one of the strongest influences on 20th-century fiction. John Steinbeck’s sympathy for socialism at a time of increasingly anti-communist sentiment in the US seeps into most of his novels. Virginia Woolf’s proto-feminist stance that stood aside from the society she was a part of emerges across her works.
It can be criticised, debated and disagreed with, but that should not take away any of its value
These are just three authors whose books, without their own beliefs bleeding into their work, would be far from the masterpieces they created. When an author has a political view and the respective audience are aware of this, the book should be judged by its own merits. It can be criticised, debated and disagreed with, but that should not take away any of its value.
Earlier this year, the German parliament passed a motion deeming the BDS movement antisemitic, describing it as “reminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history”. Whilst the country may disagree with the Shamsie’s views, simply stripping her of the award rejects any freedom of expression. Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
Of course, there are exceptions that need to be drawn out. Personal views that actively incite violence and inherently affect other people warrant little toleration. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses actively uses Muslim culture as a reference point in his work that incited violent outbursts in the Middle East. But to judge a writer based purely on their political beliefs of a highly complex situation and not their literary work completely undermines the value that comes with their books.
One of the great joys about books is that they can be discussed, appreciated and spoken of
It is worth mentioning that I am not commenting on the political situation in Israel. In fact, even though Shamsie should not have been stripped of her award, there continues to be a lot of evidence of inherent anti-Semitism in the BDS movement. It also raises the question as to why they call to boycott just Israel and not every other country that has contentiously – and arguably – annexed land from another.
Rather, this is about the broader issue surrounding just how much the personal views of an author should be used to judge their work. As long as their views don’t inherently incite violence, to strip an author of their award for their activism sets the wrong precedent moving forward.
One of the great joys about books is that they can be discussed, appreciated and spoken of. When the personal touch of the author is silenced, they may appeal to the masses, but at the cost of their value as a piece of art.