Every year, there’s pretty much the same complaint from noble Literature Nobel-watchers in the English-reading world — by which I include you and I here who, understandably, soundcheck writers whom we should have read or should be reading for purposes other than just the pleasure of reading their books. Who the heck is this bloke? Have you ever read anything by Herta Müller even now, three years after the Romanian-German author of The Land of Green Plums won the Nobel and 18 years after she won Germany’s most prestigious literary award — what’s it called? — the Kleist Prize? Why did the Nobel jury give Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer the Nobel last year when the brilliant Philip Roth or [fill in your favourite English language or translated-into-English writer of choice] is still being grandly ignored?
This is the kind of general fist-on-the-table questions that are asked a few days before the Nobel Literature Prize is announced, lingering on a few days after the winner’s showcased. And these are valid questions that make us wonder what the true function of the Nobel Prize in Literature is. Is it to select, after giving it some thought, a wonderful writer from a pool of wonderful writers across the world? Is it to point the literary reader, rather than just the literate one, to an author who should be discovered instead of having the author’s talents merely confirmed?
My reckoning is that it’s a mix of both functions, the Venn diagram showing the circle of well-known very good writers and the circle of less well-known very good writers crossing the path in a not-so-thin slice of partial eclipse once in a while — such as when Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel in 2010, Doris Lessing in 2007, Orhan Pamuk in 2006, Harold Pinter in 2005, JM Coetzee in 2003, VS Naipaul in 2001, Günter Grass in 1999, and so on and so forth. (It’s up to you, dear reader, to reckon which of these writers are ‘famous’ enough for you.) The moment a writer’s name that the voluble and powerful magic circle, a much higher-brow and geographically scattered version of the Oprah Book Club, hasn’t heard of crops up, charges fly of the Nobel jury (read: a judicious, omnivorous Swedish book-reading society) turning over stones in a desert to pick a name just for the heck of maintaining some kind of ‘famous writer-unknown writer’ balance in the universe.
But hang on. Let’s consider what defines a well-known, critically feted writer for those who object to ‘obscure names’ turning up as Nobel laureates blocking or delaying more obvious deservees. Those writers who are feted in their own backyard - that is, in their local cultural media, of course. Which is as natural as ice in the ice tray. The writers feted are not always local boys. The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel, A Hundred Years of Solitude — or, more precisely, the 1970 English translation of the book by the American Gregory Rabassa — reached cult status, heralding the craze for Latin American literature (that segued into the craze for Eastern European literature around the same time) via the New York Times book review pages and other repositories and aggregators of Anglo-American literary tastebuds. A similar ‘cult’ status befell the likes of writers such as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco and thank the lord for it, considering that’s how many of us got to know about and read them.
‘Such a gargantuan, localised literary tastes-making industry exists only in the United States on the planet. So here we are, (rightfully) joining the choral complaint, “What about Philip Roth?” while lacking the gumption to ask even politely, “Er, any chance of Mahashweta Devi getting the Nobel any time soon?” There’s a strong chance, actually, that even if we knew of the Indian writer’s credentials, we rationalised her slim chance of getting the Nobel (50/1, according to British betting firm Ladbroke’s, the same as Ian McEwan, Peter Carey and Maya Angelou) by thinking that she doesn’t fit the bill.
While the New York Times — and you and I — may be shocked that Mo Yan (“Mo Yan who?”) was awarded this year’s coveted prize, there are book-loving people out there, such as my father, who’ll say, “Philip who?” when the time comes.
So next time you gasp your heart out when someone ‘obscure’ has been dredged up by the Swedish net, remember that what determines your taste even before you’ve tasted the sausage is the machine that turns those pigs into must-eats. What the Nobel does — imperfectly, of course, because there should be nothing called uniform taste — is to throw up a few tasty sausages of a kind that you may never have munched on before.