The 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature

(Note: An update to this blog post appears after the original entry.)

In one sense, it doesn’t really matter who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Great authors don’t suddenly become greater because the Swedish Academy bestows its annual award upon them, nor do they become less good if they fail to receive that longed-for call from the Permanent Secretary four minutes before the announcement in Stockholm. Prestige aside, little distinguishes the Nobel Prize from any other award an organized body chooses to confer upon a recipient. It’s a subjective assessment based upon a specific—or, as some would argue, narrow—definition of qualities that constitute excellence. But because of the cachet and the eight million kronor ($1.2 million) prize money, it’s the one sash that every writer who struts his stuff down the literary runway would love to have draped across his chest. The literature Nobel is the most meaningful meaningless prize in the world.

Yet, in another sense, the Nobel serves a useful function. Writers known only to a small group of academics and voracious readers receive attention—sometimes for only a short while, sometimes for years thereafter—that they wouldn’t otherwise have received. Fortunately, most of the recipients are worthy honorees. Last year’s winner, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, was one of the best picks in years. Long admired in literary circles, he got a well-deserved boost in sales and readership as a result of his win. And the speculation that accompanies the build-up to each year’s announcement means that readers are reminded of the works of many great authors who won’t win the prize. Whether or not these writers ever get to meet the King of Sweden, one would do well to read the novels of Péter Nádas and Ismail Kadare and Cees Nooteboom.

To attempt to predict the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is probably a silly exercise, for many reasons. But it’s fun to speculate. The only rule appears to be that, in most cases, the author has to either be active politically or write about significant historical events or philosophical ideas. (Tranströmer is a happy exception to this rule.) I don’t know if the eighteen members of the Academy take seriously the criticism that they are too insular and too prone to favor Western writers. They probably don’t. But if they do decide to widen the field, they should consider writers such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, or Syria’s Adonis. (If you haven’t read Adonis’s poetry collection The Pages of Day and Night, please treat yourself to a copy soon.) Although it would be fun to see someone like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, or Cormac McCarthy win, they seem less likely than the more politically engaged perennial contenders.

How about you? Whom would you like to see win this year’s Nobel Prize?

*   *   *

Update, October 11, 2012: Peter Englund, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced in Stockholm today that Mo Yan, the 57-year-old author of such works as Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads, is the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the first Chinese author living in his native China to win the prize. (Gao Xingjian, the 2000 laureate, is a French citizen.) I have yet to read Mr. Mo’s novels, but Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation of Red Sorghum is well worth ninety minutes of your time. It’s a moving depiction of a young widow’s struggles after she falls in love with a peasant who works in a sorghum field.

I suspect many curious consumers will rent the film now, and many more (including, probably, me) will now buy or borrow Mr. Mo’s books. But I hope that, as I wrote in my original post, readers use the occasion of the Nobel Prize to either remind themselves of or learn about the many wonderful authors who are often mentioned as possible contenders. Today’s “losers” include Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Amos Oz, Anne Carson, Tom Stoppard, Assia Djebar, John Banville, Juan Goytisolo, plus the authors I mention in my earlier entry. Pick one of each author’s best works, and you’ve got a great syllabus. The idea of handing out awards for a discipline as subjective as the arts may be silly and trivial, but there’s nothing trivial about these authors’ contributions to world literature.

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