A Nobel Effort
The world woke up last week with one question: who is Mo Yan? It was a fair question, since he’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and all of the Western intellectuals were steamed since no one knew who he was. It turns out he’s actually a pretty big deal in China, and his books are being translated and printed in the U.S to great acclaim (when they’re actually reviewed.) So, why is everyone upset?
Human nature: we all want to root for what we’re familiar with. Apparently everyone thinks it’s a great crime that Philip Roth has never won a Nobel. It’s not like the Nobel has some sort of boundaries of taste–while people, including a member of the Nobel committee, are still annoyed about Elfriede Jelinek, another sexually frank writer, getting the prize in 2004, she still got it. (So that little scene in Portnoy’s Complaint shouldn’t mean anything.) And it’s true that some literature winners have never gotten the traction that the prize should entail. If you look at the list of early 1900s winners, you’ll only recognize Kipling, and if you’re lucky, Henryk Sienkiewicz. While it would make sense that someone of Roth’s stature would and should be under consideration, that misses the point of awarding the prize in the first place.
The Nobel is a global prize. It was conceived as such, and should not be co-opted so all of one nation, let alone a Western superpower, has all of its greatest writers are recognized by it. That’s why we have the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Orange, and Man Booker prizes, for each nation to award its own best work and by awarding those prizes, cement an author’s place in the pantheon of its own country. (And if you get enough of those awards, you may eventually be a global name.)
At least in its early days, the Nobels had a lot of political infighting related to nation’s relationships with each other. Since the voting process is a closely guarded secret, I’ve no idea if we’ve gotten beyond that. Probably not, I’d say.. But whatever the feuds and scandals, I admire the fact that the committee is considering writers from sources we Westerners don’t automatically turn to when we think of good books.
Personally, I’d be happy to be exposed to be more global literature. I get bored with one perspective or one culture. I’d like to learn about other literary traditions and tropes. I never know what to read in terms of work from other countries, and the Nobel Prize seems like a pretty strong endorsement. Why don’t we look at this as an opportunity to hear some new stories instead of praising the ones we’ve already read? ~Liz
This post originally appeared on the Books on the Make blog.
Editor’s Note: Liz Baudler recently graduated from Columbia College with a Fiction Writing degree. She founded and used to edit The Toucan Literary Magazine. Now, she just contents herself with editing one publication, Transcendent Journeys. When she’s not glued to a computer researching literary controversies or reading books and chuckling, she likes to ride her bike, cook, and make money talking about animals at Brookfield Zoo.