So, last week, it was announced that an American named “Roth” won the Nobel Prize. No, unfortunately, it wasn’t Philip Roth, but rather Alvin E. Roth, who won the prize for economics. Congratulations to him — I’m sure he deserved it a lot more than Milton Friedman, who won the award in 1976, the year after he traveled down to Chile to offer economic advice to Augusto Pinochet.
Instead, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to Mo Yan, a Chinese author who has toed the line between critic and government spokesperson. His pseudonym translates literally to “don’t speak,” and, though he has voiced sporadic support for fellow Nobel Laureate and legendary dissident Liu Xiaobo, he has cooperated with the Communist Party in various ways in the past, sitting as vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association. He has also allowed the government to co-opt his award for political gain as the first Chinese Nobel Laureate in Literature to receive government praise and endorsement.
In response to criticisms of this year’s award, permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund claimed, “We are awarding a literary prize, and it’s on literary merit.” This is an impossible notion — there’s no way for a well-informed committee to come to a purely literary judgment among the thousands of candidates in dozens of languages that they consider. Despite the Academy’s clear penchant for President Obama, here Englund sounds a lot more like Mitt “it’s not a lie if I say ‘golly’ in the middle of it” Romney. I am all for the Nobel being an international literary prize, but how about giving it to the Asian authors who really deserve it, then, like Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Korean poet Ko Un? Or, if they’re looking for a timely political pick, how about the controversial Syrian writer Adunis?
Hypocrisy should come as no surprise from the Nobel team. Sure, the Peace Prize has always been somewhat of a joke — look at past winners Yasser Arafat or Henry Kissinger — but why does the prize in Literature have to go down the drain as well?
Former permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl actually said, in 2008, that American literature was “too isolated, too insular,” and that our “ignorance is restraining.” And Engdahl would have had a point — that the award should be about achievement in world literature — until the committee’s bizarre pick of Herta Müller in 2009, the very same year that John Updike died and became ineligible. And who was really rooting for Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in 2011, other than the Swedes on the committee? The award didn’t really launch either of these writers into the forefront of world literature. The opposite of insular is not unknown.
The list of should-have-wons is long and offensive (James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and even Leo Tolstoy never received their well-deserved prizes). But Philip Roth is still alive. As a winner of two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, three PEN/Faulkners and a Pulitzer, we are literally running out of things to give Roth. And he’s been on everyone’s Nobel short-list for the last 10 years. And every year his fans receive the committee’s decision and say to themselves: “He lost to who?!”
My issues with literary prizes don’t stop there. In 2012, the Pulitzer committee decided not to award a prize. They picked three finalists, including the posthumously published The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, but for some reason they didn’t think the underappreciated author of Infinite Jest deserved it. The award isn’t supposed to be given for lifetime achievement, but the fact that Hemingway won for The Old Man and the Sea or that Faulkner won for A Fable and The Reivers seems to run contrary to this notion. Plus, Wallace clearly deserved the Pulitzer in 1997 more than Steven Millhauser for Martin Dressler: Tales of an American Dreamer.
Across the board, literary prizes have been hugely disappointing. It seems like every year, all the different big-name prizes try to outdo one another for which can be the most obscure and insightful, and they all wind up looking entirely blind.
As Ann Patchett stated in her article “And the Winner Isn’t,” we readers love these awards. Everyone loves a little competition and, though book critics try as they might to reach large audiences when they have something to recommend, there’s nothing like a shiny gold sticker on a book cover to attract attention. Reviews are great for finding out what to read, but the book world lacks the showmanship of the film industry with the Oscars or the music industry with the Grammys. Publicity like an American Nobel would do well to revive what many consider to be literature’s slow decline at the hands of Twilight and YouTube. GoodReads.com is doing its part to kill good literature (the site actually has the second Fifty Shades of Grey book with a higher user rating than The Great Gatsby).
And as far as the Nobel is concerned, we Americans haven’t seen the prize in 19 years. We could really use a literary pick-me-up right now. I am all for discovering new authors, and the Nobel does a great job of inspiring translations. But readership is suffering in the U.S. — this past week, everyone was saddened to hear that Newsweek will soon move purely to digital. Nothing ignites the fire under American readers like a win for one of our favorites. Philip Roth stands out as one of the most deserving, but we also have Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates and many more.
And we need some good cheer right now — we’re about a hair’s breadth from a Mitt Romney presidency, in which case our National Endowment for the Arts could disappear overnight to give tax breaks to ‘job creators’ like Donald Trump.