It’s two or so days until the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. I have not made a list myself yet, and after especially Dylan, I am not especially optimistic about the outcome this year. However, since last year the award did not go to a writer, and generally speaking, the award has been bypassing the global heavyweights, in favor of the Modianos and the Munros of the writing world, my picks from 2016 are still valid.
As far as I can tell, most of the writers I picked are still alive despite the horrible loss of John Ashbery this year. So please read this blog post if you are interested in who I think would merit a win this year. I have also, as a slightly puerile reaction to last year’s award, drawn up an alternative set of candidates. Now, this list may look silly, but it is at least half-serious, in a world where the literature award is no longer awarded to literature. Read the blog here.
But while you hopefully click these links I wanted to add one more thing. I am aware, following Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Simone Winko, Bourdieu and others, that awards are not a sign of “true excellence,” with the idea of an objectively best set of books or writers already being a problem. And yet I am still following book awards, and can get a bit cranky about, say, the ridiculous longlist of this year’s German Book Award, not to speak of my upset at last year’s Nobel award.
Look, whatever weaknesses awards have, I feel that some of the dismissive reactions to prizes come from people who are already well read. I mean I don’t have time scouring the lists of current novels in the languages I read, but I have ways of getting at recommendatios, but let me tell you, as a German/Russian teenager, the Booker longlist and the list of Nobel winners was a very helpful shortcut to learning about writers outside of the narrow borders of my reading. I was not surrounded by a circle of readers or writers, I wrote poetry alone and secretly, and similarly, much of my reading happened in shadows, on attics, in the quiet spaces where words from all over the world came to life.
Without awards and longlists my reading would have been restricted to that of my circle of friends, or of newspaper reviews. Germany, by the way, if you want some insight on the latter, is a country where Jonathan Franzen is taken seriously as a Nobel Prize candidate.
I found some of my favorite books and writers on the lists created by awards, award discussions and longlists, most at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to find these books. There were three distinct sources for me as a teenager, discovering literature, two of them being two bookshops in Heidelberg, both long defunct, and one my trawling through lists and awards.
Scoffing at awards is well and good for those who already know about books, or meet people they can ask. In my opinion, awards have a powerful function in the literary discourse, beyond what they say about how the field of literature works, and how value hierarchies are constructed etc. etc. They are also just lists of books that we can easily access, look up, read.
And that’s why last year’s stupid award made me angrier than a misplaced award like the Munro did. Books. They matter. And I’ll wait for the announcement this year again. I won’t be as excited as in previous years because to an extent, they broke the award last year. But I’ll be waiting. And hoping. And please, dear GOD, don’t give it to Murakami or Marias.
So we now live in a post-Dylan world, a world where Bob Dylan won literature’s highest award. Maybe Buchi Emecheta didn’t do enough Chrysler commercials? Read Björn’s excellent appreciation if you want to see why Dylan might have won it. The overwhelming whiteness of Mr. Zimmermann might have contributed (or else, why not award Caetano Veloso, who truly revolutionized a country’s music, who was jailed, exiled and is still a respected voice in the political conversation of his country. Read his excellent memoir for details), it wouldn’t have been the first time. After all, the last black winner of the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison, and the last black African winner was Wole Soyinka. The last winner for engaging with oral tradition was Dario Fo, a writer, like Veloso, who was politically active, powerful and a significant voice. Fo died the day of the award, and one wonders how soon after his burial he started spinning in his grave*. Anyway. Because I’m probably not doing the Nobel Picks next year (here is this year’s edition), given that WHO KNOWS what Danius and company will do next, here are already my picks. As Björn has pointed out – with this award, how can the Academy refuse an award to any art form that involves writing of some kind? The picks are all excellent artists who, in a post-Dylan world, might receive the award, which should more honestly be called The Nobel Prize for Writing Things.
1. Michael Haneke. Haneke, narrowly beating out Tarantino and Malick, is cinema’s best living writer-director. You could argue this with me but you’d be wrong. Sure, there are others, but Haneke’s movies are finely crafted, complex, brilliant pieces of writing, politically, emotionally, philosophically resonant. They don’t hold up on the page, because they are written by one of the finest living cinematic minds, with the cinematic resolution in mind, but neither do Dylan’s songs, so that’s clearly not a criterion.
2. William Michael Griffin, Jr., better known under his stage name Rakim. So there is some argument that Dylan invented something truly novel in the American tradition, but no new musical invention has been as transformative as rap, which allowed black artists to fully reap the fruits of their own musical inventions. Rakim’s work with the art form is historically significant: he is something of a link between the classic beginnings and the more fluid, broadly skilled shape of the art form today. Rakim’s influence on the shape of rap – and the shape of music in general cannot be overstated. It would have been silly to give the award to any musician, but Rakim would have been a better, more interesting choice than Bob Dylan. In the post-Dylan years to come, when the academy looks for worthy candidates, Rakim should be hard to overlook, although, with black candidates, the Academy has a history of being truly, uniquely, dazzlingly talented at overlooking black people. So who knows
3. Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51. Suda51 is a video game creator of genius. A true master of the art. In a post-Dylan world, it would be stupid to overlook video game writing, as this art form will be one of the most valuable and important contributions to the creative arts in the near future. Jesse Singal recently wrote about how video game writing appears to be graded on a curve, and he’s not wrong. However, the achievements of the greats of the genre, though you couldn’t really print them, are standout achievements. They are made with the medium in mind -there is no way to pin Suda51’s creative energies to the printed page. But the Nobel Prize in Writing Things has liberated itself from mere books. Suda51, however, is very young, despite the size and excellence of his work. He has also not been as influential on the genre as some older writers. Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts is brilliant and influential, as is Sid Meier, inventor of Civilization, not to forget Ron Gilbert, who was involved in the creation not just of some of the most important adventure games (Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken) but also scripted the software that was used for many of them. I picked Suda51 because I think he is one of the most brilliant people working in video games, period, a creator of lesser influence but more genius than any other creator I mentioned here.
4. Should Coding count as writing? Because, really, if we’re past the event horizon here, why not? I honestly see no reason why not. So as choice #4 I propose Linus Torvalds. It would give the Swedish minority in Finland a Nobel Prize, which is politically interesting, and would stress the global nature of the Nobel Prize in Writing Things. It would also award the prize to yet another white Western man, which, I mean, clearly, is a priority for this generation of the academy. This is what I think went down last year when they postponed the award:
“Oh God I think we have to give it to Ngugi this year.” “Really?” “Yeah I see no way out. Or do you want to give it to that Syrian fellow? We have enough refugees in Sweden as is!” “Shit.” “OH OH Hang on! Dylan!” “What?” “Yeah, let’s give it to Dylan, it’ll make us look unconventional and look how white he is! He’s even wearing a Clark Gable mustache!”
Jokes aside, apart from luminaries like Jean Sammet (ETA: she died in the meantime.), Torvald’s achievement is truly remarkable and hard to ignore when you hand out the Nobel Prize in Writing Things. In an interview with tech crunch, Torvalds said that most of his work today involves integrating other people’s code, and only 2% of the Linux kernel was written by him personally (which, snark aside, is actually quite a lot), so he’s a truly worthy successor to Bob Dylan.
Looking forward to a bright and lovely future for the Nobel Prize in Writing Things, kind of.
*Yes, yes, I know Fo was actually a supporter of the award going to Dylan. Though I wonder how much of this was a rhetorical stance targeted at an institution, and how much of it a literary appreciation.
ETA: But of course.
One curious aspect of Thursday’s bizarre decision is the fact that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are, in Romania, translated by Mircea Cartarescu, who is slowly becoming one of those perennial Nobel candidates himself, rumored every year, high up on the Ladbrokes list, losing to a singer who likes simple rhyme schemes and stealing from blacker and poorer artists. I mean, “inventing a form,” of course. My bad. Cartarescu is a bit sad these days, expecting as he does the Nobel prize any day now. It’s becoming a bit embarrassing, tbh.
I present this year’s winner of literature’s most prestigious award.
Is there anything more American – than America?
So the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement has been pushed up. According to a post at a forum that I used to be a member of (and that you should consider joining?), it is NOT because of a disagreement.
So the late date isn’t because of any disagreement within the Academy?- Absolutely not. It’s a purely mathematical ritual.
Well. 1) I believe in the old tabloid adage that denial of disagreement is confirmation of disagreement and 2) I’d like to think one of them went 12 Angry Men – So here is a possible way this went down (I apologize in advance. My computer keeps dying and my email accout is possessed. This is good distraction):
Sara Danius: “So I assume we all agree? It’s another white/European/comfy writer? Who wants to write the commentary. I mean “she’s a master of short stories” was pretty good.” Academy members mumble agreement. “What about this one? We can start with the words “memory”, “Europe” and “History,” right? Ok Let’s vote.”
Voting. One “no” vote. Danius, upset: “Who did this?”
Suddenly, from the back, a rebel Academy Member says: “Well, maybe this time we shouldn’t pick an unoriginal European?”
Shock, as outrage, noises ensue. One yells: “How will we recognize excellence if it’s not white and comfortable? Vi har högt i tak but enough is enough!”
Another one takes out a color chart “But I learned that everything darker than this” -points to ochre- “is not a real writer!”
A small man yells, very self-satisfied: “WHO is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”
Rebel academy member sits silently. He leans forward: “I’m just saying, have you read these books – ?” and pushes literally dozens of non-European Nobel worthy candidates across the table. Paperbacks, hardcovers, knocking over a glass of water (and the customary can of surströmming, I assume)
This generates more outrage: “What’s wrong with you?” “How do you even pronounce that?” “What kind of name is “Tsitsi”?”
Rebel academy member keeps calm, shrugs. “Look, I don’t know. We used to do this differently, just like two decades ago. When’s the last time we awarded a Wole Soyinka? Is it Wole Soyinka? Look at all these writers. I just don’t know about this European/pale/bland/genteel fellow we picked again this time.”
Chubby academy member gets up, puffs his cigar, after dipping it into spilled surströmming. “Hey, pipe down. Le Clèzio travels a lot. Isn’t that enough? Munro was Canadian! And so easy to read! If anything we need more Europeans!”
Another one gets up: “Coetzee is African AND Australian! We are so diverse!”
Rebel academy member: “Have you read Zakes Mda, he –
Academy member interrupts him: ” – wait! Aren’t there white South Africans? Maybe this is a good compromise? Marlene van Niekerk is good!” Looks around into disapproving faces. Sits down, redfaced.
Chubby guy gets up again: “Look, buddy, I think you made up half these names. We have enough foreigners here as is. I’m telling you, I can easily tell a good European writer from one of those silly ones from half a mile away!”
Rebel takes out two printouts. “Well, I have two pages here, one from a recent winner, one from an African novelist who we’ve shunned so far, and who should have won it.” Looks at chubby guy, who’s probably a historian, you know how those guys are. Rebel academy member reads a page of Munro aloud without attribution, and afterwards reads a page of Achmat Dangor. Holds up both printouts.
Chubby guy, chomps on cigar, grinning. “Ha.” Points to Dangor. “That is clearly the better writer.”
Rebel academy member reveals the truth. Silence. A cigar can be heard dropping to the floor.
Nervous head of the committee says “Should we vote again?” This time, two no votes. The room groans.
Quietly, Sara Danius says: “I guess we need more time. Let’s send Per out and say it’s some mathematical snafu.” Everyone nods. Danius speaks into an intercom. Pauses. Presses button on intercom again: “Bring us the complete works of Philippe Toussaint. And that Romanian fellow.” Academy members relax. Maybe this will work out after all. Somebody puts on ABBA. An assistant is sent to Systembolaget to get some booze.
Again, I apologize. My Nobel Prize picks are here, by the way, if you’re interested (although they don’t, uh, contain Zakes Mda, Tsitsi Dangarembga or any of the other writers mentioned here).
Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.
The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.
And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.
So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.
ONE: Poetry My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.
TWO: International Fiction Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, political and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.
THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.
Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.