China’s Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday to the consternation of Bob Dylan fans, but more on that later.
Those of you reading this column right now are probably unfamiliar with Mo Yan. I certainly was. But since I invest Nobel laureates with a certain measure of credibility and stature, I decided to check him out, the Prize being, if nothing else, a sterling recommendation. I started small with “Explosions and Other Stories.”
The stories were good—well written, provocative to the extent that most of them covered controversial topics such as forced abortion and military corruption without coming across as thinly veiled political tracts—it was enough to make me want to look at his other work. I would say, based on those stories and based on what his other books promise, Mo Yan probably earned that Nobel.
The announcement was also historic, in a sense. Mo Yan is not the first Chinese Nobel laureate in literature—that honor goes to Gao Xingjian in 2000—but he is the first one to receive the award while still being a bona fide Chinese citizen. Gao Xingjian immigrated to France in 1987. It’s not perfect, but for all intents and purposes, Mo Yan is China’s first Nobel laureate, though not the first Chinese one.
As is to be expected of any major prize, there has been inevitable backlash against his nomination. Chinese critics have claimed Mo Yan isn’t extreme enough in his depiction of China, that he isn’t critical enough. And, of course, there are the inevitable clamors of “it’s high time an American won the Nobel (again)! We haven’t gotten one since 1993!” or “X should have gotten it because Y” or even “they should have given it to Bob Dylan!”
Yes, you read that right.
Bob Dylan’s odds at winning the Nobel Prize were vaunted by Ladbrokes Bookmaker, a gambling company that tabulates bets on who will get the prize, among other endeavors, odds of 10:1. So it’s not like somebody on the Nobel committee was generating buzz on Dylan receiving the prize. It was all rampant speculation—by all accounts, rampantly stupid speculation.
The front-runner of Ladbrokes’ odds table was Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, at 2:1. Other likely candidates were William Trevor (Irish author) at 7:1, Alice Munro (Canadian short story author) at 8:1 and Thomas Pynchon (American enigma) at 12:1. Mo Yan was also towards the front at 8:1.
The promotion of Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature is not surprising or confounding; the reasons are perfectly evident, and—a running theme in this discussion—perfectly absurd.
Giving Bob Dylan the Prize would have validated an entire generation old enough to remember when Bob Dylan was hot stuff rather than your creaky old uncle in the corner whose every phlegm snort gets a five star rating from “Rolling Stone.” It would have elevated songwriting to the realm of poetry, with Dylan being its revered and deserving figurehead. And with all petty formalities of genre and aesthetic distinction out of the way, the Nobel committee could start giving its literary prize away to such deserving contenders as Paul Simon and James Taylor.
Dear God, may this never happen.
It’s not even a question of Paul Simon undermining the credos of the Prize, outlined by Alfred Nobel in his will (the source of every Nobel prize); the Swedish Academy has been doing that for years.
As a whole, the Nobel Prizes were meant to celebrate some special advancement in culture and the sciences. The first three (Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine) are pretty straightforward and incontestable. The first Physics prize went to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen for his role in the discovery of X-rays. And, really, you can’t knock X-rays.
The last two, Peace and Literature, provoke the most polarized responses around the world, and it’s really to no surprise. The original criteria for the Literature prize was (and maybe still is), “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
What that is supposed to mean, and whether such a sentiment is still relevant more than 100 years after those guidelines were determined, is up for debate. What’s also up for debate is whether the Nobel Prize in Literature is the holdover of a lost time, an apocryphal measurement of worth.
The first Nobel Prize in Literature went to a Frenchman named Sully Prudhomme. Outcry was swift, as the general expectation had been Leo Tolstoy receiving the Prize. The outcry was likely as vehement and divided as Mo Yan’s receipt of the Prize is today.
The Prize gets by on its prestigious background and worth—it’s the largest literary prize at around $1.2 million U.S. dollars. And plenty of deserving authors have won. Too many to name. Yet, due to the variegated, variously faceted nature of world literature, it’s unlikely one year’s Nobel laureate will ever escape criticism. And it’s unlikely everybody who deserves the recognition and wealth will get it. There are too many agendas floating around.