And the Nobel Prize for Literature 2012 goes to…

Mo Yan, a Chinese writer who “merges folktales, history and the contemporary,” like Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy, said.

If this were a news site, I’d now add a couple of useless facts about Mo Yan. But this is not a news site, so if you want to read more, you can go here or here. But I’m going to tell you what I think about the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I haven’t read any of Mo Yan’s works, so I can’t say if he deserved to win the award or not. And I haven’t read any of his stuff because I’ve never heard about this guy.

What I do know is that the Nobel Prize for Literature has become the literary equivalent of Eurovision. Its aim is to give out the award to writers from every country in the world. And while they’re at it, give them a million bucks as well. It’s become just a marketing gimmick.

Like I said, my rant has nothing to do with this Chinese fellow. Until I read some of his stuff that is.

But I have to say that at least half of those who received the award in the past 20 years or so didn’t deserve it.

Yeah, you could say that art is subjective, and you would be right, but the thing is that we’re talking about critical consensus here, about cultural influence, and so on. The Nobel Prize stopped being the most prestigious award in the literary world when the Swedish Academy failed to honor Jorge Luis Borges, a man who practically changed the way we perceive literature.

Because this is what the Nobel is supposed to be, right? A lifetime achievement award, a testimony of the cultural impact of a writer.

Murakami was considered favorite to win this year. Brilliant writer, he’s at the top of his game. No arguments about that. But what other options were there?

Like Cormac McCarthy, who changed storytelling conventions and shattered grammar rules with great effect? Maybe he’s too bloody for the Swedish Academy. What’s wrong with John Updike then? The guy wrote one of the few truly great novels written in the present tense. Or Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Alice Munro? Amos Oz?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that they should have given the award to E.L. James and lose any and all credibility forever.


72 thoughts on “And the Nobel Prize for Literature 2012 goes to…

  1. I agree that the award is too Eurocentric and, naturally, political leanings have impeded some authors chances, such as Borges. A former secretary of the award stated "the US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature" and I actually believe that. Think of Cormac McCarthy. A truely amazing writer and his style really does assend plot in some of his works. But he really is an American writer. A lot of his themes can translate to other cultures but I think the power of his work is really rooted in the American ideal and upbringing. I really don't think that his works will do much for Asian or European readers other than them saying "wow, that was well written." A lot of works are well written but there is that element that sticks with you and labels your core. I don't think his works, and a lot of other American's writers' works, have that power with non-american readers.


  2. While I do agree with your general statement, let's not forget that in the past 20 years authors such as Vargas Llosa and Saramago have received the Nobel prize. I would consider them notable exceptions.


  3. I kind of like the way it's done, because it always introduces me to new authors I otherwise wouldn't have found. I mean, people like Murakami or Pynchon are great, but they certainly are already very famous. Isn't it nice that the attention (and the money) goes to less well-known authors instead?


  4. Just reading the titles of his books and some of the reviews on goodreads were interesting. I agree with you on some of your points. The Nobel Prize is definitely not what it used to be, or was intended to be. Unfortunately, the Pulitzer is going the same place, but on a smaller scale.


  5. I lost all hope a long time ago that I'd win a Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize for Literature. Let's face it, horror isn't exactly something these guys would go for. They're more the literary types, and probably look at my work as crass commercialism.


  6. If E.L. James gets the Nobel Literature Prize, the world has come to an end in so many ways.

    But I think Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are excellent authors and deserved the prize. But they are the only authors that interest me on that list.


  7. Like other things, it sometimes seems the award is used to make a statement about something more than what is being awarded.

    But, to be fair, they are between a rock and a hard place. What is relevant in one culture is not relevant in another, and it's difficult to say were personal prejudices and preconception start and end.

    For instance, defining "significant impact" in terms of people affected would make Avatar one of the greatest movies ever, but Joe Versus the Volcano left much more of a mark on me, and still provides me with stuff to think about.

    In literature it's even more difficult. I have never been impressed with Shakespeare's plays (the writing, characters, or themes/plots). This diminishes me in the eyes of many (I'm past caring), and people will argue his works are the "greatest ever".

    But let's consider why his works are held as beacons of literature. Depending who you ask, it's both because of the structure, and because they deal with everyday concerns of the human animal. Meh. I would call them contrived, no more than fancier versions of fairy tales. And also frustrating, for the same reason.

    And for that I would be lynched. But the real question is this . . . what authors did we miss, what style and/or form are we dismissing, what material is being overlooked just because The Plays are so popular? How limiting is it to writing when people are pointed into one direction and told that is the path?

    So, yeah . . . the prize has probably taken on a role beyond that which it was initially set up for. But has the spirit of the prize changed?

    It's a rhetorical question; I don't care. What I read is not dictated by prizes or popularity or what the experts consider essential.


  8. I've read some of Mo Yan in translation – he is a stolid writer grounded in the peasant class so it is easy for the Chinese government to be glad of his win. (I need to ask some of my Chinese friends if they have read him in the original and what they think.)


  9. If I knew anything about the authors you mentioned as deserving, (and I'm sure it is to my shame that I don't…I feel a "Google spree" coming on…lol) I could give a much more thoughtful comment, but since you seemingly know what you're talking about, I "liked" your post… which is another topic entirely: isn't it funny how we will agree with someone who seems to have more authority on a subject than we do, ourselves, based on the fact that they just "sound" like they do (although in this case, I'm sure you do) just in general…or am I the only one? (Sheeple, anyone? jk) Thanks for posting!


  10. I agree, the Nobel Prize doesn't reward the best authors. However, it does bring to attention authors I would not encounter on my own, and gives me a reason to read their work if for no other reason than to say I did. And what a great conversation starter: “I just read a book by the most recent Nobel Prize winner for literature, and I thought it sucked!”

    But seriously, I had a project for myself to read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction (another rather dubious award, especially since Pulitzer himself was not a fan of fiction), and although I never finished the project, (I can't stand John Updike!) it was a great way to force myself to read books that otherwise would have escaped my notice. Like Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, a western (yuck) that won in 1985. I LOVED that book. No book has ever made me feel so much sorrow at the death of a character. Ever.

    I never would have read it if it hadn't won that prize. And my life would be the lesser for it.


  11. Very interesting voyage of discovery you sent me on, young man!! I had not heard of Jorge Luis Borges; but then, you see, I'm not as some might term it, a "literature guy," no rather, I'm rather a "science guy" who fell in love with a literature girl the better part of a century ago. It makes me very particular regarding what I like and what I don't. I enjoyed reading about Mr. Borges. Regarding the Nobel Prize for anything other than scientific things, I could offer an augmentation or two regarding what the Prize and the society has become. Alas, I'm am merely a humble writer of sonnets, and tend to steer clear of such matters. Because these things enter into the realm of politics, which is too serious for me, and incidentally, that from which I write sonnets and especially long fiction to escape.

    On the other hand, I feel fairly certain that I'm on the "right track," as some might put it, if I suggest that two questions and their answers are directly related. If you can tell me the reason the current American president received a Nobel Peace Prize only a few days or so after which he took office, I believe you shall have your answer as to what the Nobel Society is really in the business of rewarding.

    Very engaging writing, young man. I am impressed. i shall visit again, I am quite sure.


  12. I have been trying to keep an open mind towards the Nobel prize for the last ten years or so, since some of the choices have befuddled me somewhat (I just love that word…had to use it). I had never heard of this Chinese fellow either although I did see the Red Sorghum movie. It does feel that some of the thinking behind the award is motivated by reasoning of which literary merit is only a small part. I guess history will tell – if we look back, many Nobels stood the test of time but there were quite a lot of duds


  13. I couldn't agree more. As a European living in the States I notice more and more things that are part of the US world and the US world alone, and that is reflected in much US literature. There are many themes that are impossible to truly translate, that is, to transport all of their facets. A non-US person (who has average knowledge of life and politics in the US) would need a massive amount of footnotes to actually understand some books fully.


  14. I've not heard of Mo Yan either so wouldn't comment on his worth but I agree that many institutions seem to have some kind of tally for how many people from different ethnicities, genders and nationalities have been credited and this is often at the foremost of the decision. I kind of think that talent is sometimes the secondary credential and this is possibly what we've seen in recent Nobel Prize Awards as well as a lot of other awards too.

    Great post and really good writing too :)

    I do believe there are a lot of celebrated writers and members of other fields that are well worth their commendations though.


  15. Thomas Pynchon? Have you ever tried to read his stuff? I have a friend who said his work was amazing. To me, the stuff was just crap. But maybe that puts me in the league of the ignorant? . . . I too shall have to look up Jorges Luis Borges, however. This same friend put me onto Kurt Vonnegut, and there was certainly nothing disappointing about that.


    • Pynchon's okay. Borges is like… the Goethe of Latin American literature. He exerted a tremendous influence on Latin American literature (just for fun, if you look at his Wikipedia bio at the writers he influenced you can see how influential he was).

      Kurt Vonnegut, that's another one the Swedish Academy omitted. Really influential writer, probably the best satirist in the history of literature.


  16. Or Billy Collins or Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates…I watch the Nobel literature announcement every year and get disappointed more and more…Your post really validated my opinions and shed some new, grey, sadly murky light on what, as you said, should be "A lifetime achievement award, a testimony of the cultural impact of a writer." :-(


  17. The Chinese government is endorsing Mo Yan and welcomes the Noble Prize. I wonder if Mo Yan is fulfilling his moral duty as a writer by dodging the real issues of humanity in his country. I would rather the winner was Murakami. His IQ 84 is still a book I have to read.


  18. What's that, you say? You mean the Twilight fanfiction tortured exploration of a twisted love between a tormented man and a budding sex goddess isn't good enough for literature's most cherished prize? Not even when it provides such a thorough exploration of abuse female sexuality?

    I think I need to wash my keyboard after typing that. But I do find the different names you mentioned intriguing- I think I read a Borges story (did he write "In the Garden of the Forking Paths?" or is my memory failing me yet again? Off to Google!), and though I don't know much about him, I don't know much about this prize-winner either, so I suppose I'd have to read his stuff. The problem is that it would most likely be a translation, which can fog up judging the effectiveness of his ideas.

    I find it interesting what you said about McCarthy being good but too American for this kind of award. Because it seems that this man who's just one is very focused on Chinese culture, and if there are people worldwide who can recognize and appreciate the merit of a story- should the story being steeped in a particular culture be an obstacle to its merit? I guess how far something reaches across a culture is more difficult to measure than just the impact of the story.


  19. This is a very interesting post! As some of the other people have said, I have never heard of this author, so I can't necessarily say yay or nay to his body of work, but I totally agree with what you're saying. People take "affirmative action" WAY too far sometimes, and to me, that seems racist in and of itself. I can't even begin to imagine how horrible it must feel to find out that you were given something not because of your merits, but because of your race.

    Great post, great writing, I can't wait to see more!


  20. It's not just the Literature prize, I think the Nobel committee in general gives awards on the basis of politics rather than solid achievement in a particular field. But that is the nature of awards, the group that decides on a particular recipient can't help but bring their own preconceptions and preferences to the table. Most of my major influences wouldn't even be considered because they write "genre fiction" rather than "literature".

    Sometimes it seems to me that the working definition of "literature" is "books about normal people." How boring is that?


  21. I truly believe that a writer deserve some kind of recognition or award for his/her brilliant content and ability to move the reader, contextualizing with the day to day social issues and the complexities of life. "To Have or to Be?" , a 1976 book by social psychologist Erich Fromm that differentiates between having and being to me is one of the most influential writers and also had been sidelined by the powers to be. I would say that the Nobel is one of a celebratory event rather than a cerebral one.


  22. And Gao Xingjian! Another one of my favourites! I didn't care much for Lessing, but I have heard great things about Orhan and Llosa. It is so hard to make good criticism about this prize, because the world is so big, and culturally, there is a weird type of time lag that occurs internationally. I think the rise and fall of American culture, the rise of the Chinese dragons will come to increasingly be expressed in literature and in future prizes (

    Also, language is such an interesting and challenging hurdle when you look at so much of this work. I remember the first time I was completely berated by a Czech about my love for Milan Kundera (still one of my favourite authours). She said there was no way you could understand ANY of his work if you were reading a translated version. I have read a dozen or so books in english *and* in french and it is true, the differences a translation can make are incredible.

    I would not be so quick to critique such an award so quickly, but rather to approach it as a way that one school of thought interprets the forerunners…and also to take advantage to look at a contextual view of some great new authors! It's an amazing way to connect with people internationally!

    Also, totally check out Soul Mountain by Xingjian. I love love love loved it. Totally not my normal tastes, but totally surprised myself.


  23. Love this post, and your commentary on the award. And totally agree with IntrovertedAnalysts's perspective… the story should (and most usually does, when it's written by a talented story-teller like McCarthy) transcend the culture.


  24. An excellent and fair comment. I have not read Mo Yan and other modern Chinese writers for a long time. Chinese works are quite badly translated, even by the chinese themselves.Recently I encountered many Europeans, Americans, Africans etc who are very proficient in the language. Lately, I have attempted to translate some Chinese ancient poems into more readable English, though I am not Chinese educated.Hope the Nobel win will encourage East-West understanding and exchanges, for a better world.


  25. I guess I'll just admit it; I never pay attention to who wins the Noble Prize. I hear about it when somebody mentions it (i.e. your post here) but I never care enough to follow it on my own. I just like what I like and sometimes it has nothing to do with what anybody else likes or finds prestigious…I have not read E.L. James' work and have no desire to, but perhaps she should win next time. Clearly her work, good bad or indifferent, has people across the world talking about it ;). Seriously…thank you for another great post.


  26. Hi Mihai, your article on the Nobel Literature Prize has inspired me to pen my latest article "Create Your Own Platform". We give too much power to publishers and producers to accept our writing or our music and if they don't, our dreams are dashed. Maybe the Swedes have too much power. With an email, a blog, you and others can create a Noble (not Nobel) Literature Prize of your own as readers or writers. And if Borges deserves such as Prize, then give it to him. As for million dollar prizes, those can be crowd sourced.


  27. I was also zapped when I read this news. Never even heard of the guy and he won over Murakami. The news article I read almost made it sound like they were placating China for giving the Nobel prize to some dissidents some time back.


  28. You made my day! You are so intelligent Julie, this comment is so true. I do not agree with the post, I do agree about Jorge Luis Borges he is one of my favorites and Octavio Paz (not mention in any way in the post and novel prize winner 1990), but like any award is an open window that you may want to check for yourself or not. What this post made me do is look for Mo Yan books and will read them and then will get back at Cristian ;)


  29. I'm curious. Your post seems to suggest that what "ought to be" rewarded is not a lifetime of producing excellent literature, but a lifetime of producing _innovative_ literature. Your essay is peppered with sentiments like "cultural influence", "practically changed the way we perceive literature" (which, considering I doubt almost anyone's heard of that author, is certainly a vast overstatement), "cultural impact", "changed storytelling conventions and shattered grammar rules with great effect", "one of the few truly great novels written in the present tense"… it seems to reduce the idea of great literary achievement to some kind of parlor trick. And, it runs completely contrary to what you admit is the core aim of the award, to recognize lifetime achievement. Writing one truly great novel, no matter how unique, is not a lifetime of achievement.

    Art, all art, not just literature, and in some ways less true for literature than for visual art, has had a problem since the late 19th Century. It has begun to mistake the novel for the excellent. Our culture has mistakenly equated doing something no one's ever done before, mere "originality" (or more accurately, mere novelty) with genuine inspiration and innovation. By this kind of benchmark we get those who insist that punk was a truly massive musical achievement because it threw out centuries of assumptions that you should know how to play an instrument, have some actual talent on that instrument, and have at least the most basic understanding of musical structures before attempting to perform before an audience. All the rules, GONE! Except that most punk music is truly gawd awful. Sure, there are some genuinely great punk songs. But those are almost all done by people who knew all the rules, knew how to actually play, had actually talent, and then opted to do something else. The difference between Sonic Youth and The Germs. Visual art stopped being about learning actual technique from a previous generation's masters and then finding your own expression in an endless progression of evolving styles which manifested through time and became about finding some way to construct an object in a manner no one else had done before, giving it a pretentious title and then calling it "art". Sliced up sharks in preservation tanks as opposed to Monet's water lilies.

    Innovation isn't everything. "House of Leaves" is a pretty innovative book in terms of breaking the rules. But it is hardly even "literature" let alone great literature or award winning literature and it certainly isn't a lifetime of achievement.

    I'm not defending the Nobel choices over any past stretch of time. I know very little about them, and I'm sure the process is as politicized as it is for the Peace prize and the science prizes (which have winners equally suspect, if not more so, to those in literature).

    But we have to be careful when it comes to determining what is being produced _now_ that will be seen as lasting and valuable a century or more from now. Shakespeare didn't break a whole lot of new ground. In fact, he pandered to the lowest common denominator pretty regularly. And he wrote some of the best theater The West has yet produced. For every Jackson Pollock there were ten thousand other guys slopping paint around who will all be forgotten.

    Even with novels, novelty isn't everything.


  30. I completely agree with you about your general vision. By the way, Jorge Luis Borges is absolutely amazing, and he's somehow my favourite writer too, if having got one is possible. Mind you, I don't think Murakami deserves so high international awards. From my point of view his books are good, but no more.


  31. So many 'he's' so few 'she's'… what's that all about? I'm glad you included Alice Munroe in your list, Cristian, she is deserving as are so many more female writers.

    The first novel reportedly ever written, The tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu a Noble Woman in 1007.

    C'mon, these awards are a bit one sided don't you think????


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  33. Oddly enough, some of Mo Yan's works are banned in China and some are given the stamp of approval. I believe "The Garlic Ballads" are one of the banned works and after reading it I just assumed he was living abroad. Kind of stunning he was allowed to continue after that one.


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