Nobel Prize in Literature’s Wrong Obsession with Anonymity

Nobel Prize in Literature’s Wrong Obsession with Anonymity October 10, 2014

The French writer Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. So this is another year that the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a writer I have not read before. I have had heard his name a lot as he was always in running for the Nobel and was mentioned as a contender, but he was among many European writers I have never heard of except when it comes to Nobel. And as the Chairman of Nobel Committee said, the man is very famous in France, but almost nowhere else. If you want to get to know the guy, the blog The Literary Saloon collects links to reactions and introductions and reviews of his books here and here.


I’m actually excited to read Modiano. His books seem very interesting, and the fact that he is already famous in France and has won their coveted  Prix Goncourt are all encouraging, so I’ll definitely check his books and I really hope I’ll learn about a great author. But even if I decide Modiano deserved his Nobel, I generally find this practice of giving the Prize to obscure authors wrong and here I argue why.

The thinking behind this is, I guess, that authors like Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami already have all the recognition they need, so maybe the Nobel should go to people who are less internationally famous and therefore the world gains something by making them famous. This is an argument that doesn’t make much sense to me. First of all, many recent winners have been already internationally famous when they won, like J. M. Coetzee (2003), Harold Pinter (2005), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Doris Lessing (2007), Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), and Alice Munro (2013). If already acclaimed authors are not supposed to win, none of these authors should have won either. If they have won, then there’s no excuse for some of the greatest authors of our time to be excluded from the Prize. We now know that Carlos Fuentes will never win the Prize because he died two years ago, and he is far superior as an author to most of the recent winners. And it’s any day now that Roth and McCarthy go ahead and join the ranks of writers like Tolstoy and Borges who never won the Prize.

And, at least in my humble opinion, Nobel’s quest for obscure greats has been mostly fruitless. I went ahead and read many of these anonymous authors after they had won. Mo Yan (2012) was simply a bad writer, he was a Chinese knock-off of Marquez, and someone must tell the committee that nonsensical magical realism is no longer “edgy” but a cliche itself. Elfriede Jelinek (2004), J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008), and Herta Müller (2009) are all at best “meh”, (Müller for example is a very cliche “political” author) and certainly don’t deserve the company of giants of literature like Pinter and Lessing in any way.

And who reads them? Have they become a part of the global dialog of literature? Does anyone really discuss Le Clézio beyond his odd Nobel Prize? Have their books become influential and life changing?

I know this comes as a shock to people who like being “niche” and “edgy”, but if someone is not already internationally famous, the odds are that they are just not that good. There are so many literary prizes out there and so many university departments and magazines and journals dedicated to literature that if you seriously follow the literature odds are that you already have read at least one book by a great author. These days other literary prizes have become much more reliable than Nobel. Hillary Mantel is a great author who deserves to be canonized right now, and she is famous for winning two Man Booker Prizes for her masterpieces. Pulitzer and the American National Book Awards are usually filled with much greater names.

But even if Nobel actually could pick up a great obscure author, it won’t mean much for the author I’m afraid. Nobel made William Faulkner famous, and the world of literature is indebted to the Prize for that forever. But right now there are so many mediocre authors who are famous only for winning Nobel, or actually they still remain obscure (look back at the winners during 90s and 80s and tell me if you recognize even the name of the obscure ones), that an author winning the Prize can only muster “Oh, one of those” and nothing else.

Of course, one might tell me that Nobel is doing this in the name of diversity. I don’t buy into this. First off the Prize is still completely Eurocentric. Secondly great authors from other regions of the world may not be as popular as Roth, but they are as widely recognized. Many people don’t know the winner Tomas Tranströmer (2011), or great writers who deserved the Prize more than Mo Yan back in 2012, like the Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the Syrian poet Adonis. There are many non-European great authors from Africa and Asia who are internationally famous and esteemed and could add diversity to the Prize as well.

And also, the Prize’s hate-boner against the literature of the USA is simply pathetic. Whether we like it or not the USA is the center of literature and culture in our time, just like Russia was at the end of 19th century or the UK and France in the beginning of 19th century. No serious literary Prize can ignore the USA for 21 years.

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