Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Nobel mess

I've been thinking about the Nobel award winners for 2018 and 2019 quite a bit for the past few days. It's hard not to; pretty much every winner in the past few years has had some degree of controversy, not to mention the shameful scandal that led to the Nobel to push off the 2018 award to this year in the first place. But something about this year feels extra frustrating and disappointing, possibly because there are two winners and that only emphasizes all of the flaws inherent in the award.

Also, one of the winners is... not great. We'll get to that in a moment.

Like many readers, I used to have great admiration for the Nobel prize. When I was a teenager and starting out work on this blog, I wrote a full list of all of the Nobel winners in a notebook and marked which I wanted to read, at what priority, which work I most wanted to read... and I set myself the goal of reading through all of them. That project fizzled quickly, once I realized how mediocre a lot of writers were (particularly in the early 20th century) and once I started to feel how imbalanced the list was. Once I started working on expanding my definition of the canon, it felt even more outdated to focus on Nobel winners in particular - why bother with a list of European men?

My shift in opinion doesn't match reality, in as much as regular readers are still mostly influenced by the "big name" awards than they'll ever be by... smaller and more obscure literary movements. (*cough*) The Nobel award winners are published in almost every major news outlet in the world. Their books are typically translated widely and sell (reasonably) well. A Nobel carries weight in a way that no other international award does.

So let's talk about why this year's award is so disappointing.

In 2018, an alternate Nobel ("New Academy Prize in Literature") was given to the French-Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. The prize was seen as a bit of a filler, a "kiddie" award that was quickly dissolved. Condé was a noble choice - she is a remarkably good and diverse writer whose works absolutely deserve greater exposure and attention. Sidelined as the alternate Nobel may have been, it nonetheless gave some degree of attention to an author who, frankly, is more than worthy for the "real" award.

In the leadup to the double-awarding of 2019, the Nobel committee seemed eager to smooth things over with anxious readers. Just last week, the Guardian had a whole article devoted to the committee's desire to expand beyond male dominated and Eurocentric winners. It's hard not to stare at the sketches of the writers - both white Europeans - and feel cheated. Weren't we promised something different? But the disappointment feels even more tainted - I desperately want to support Olga Tokarczuk (a writer I think is also quite worthy of recognition, and one whose work Flights, for example, explicitly tackles questions of narrowmindedness and diversity) and recognize that it's still absurdly difficult for any woman writer in translation (even European!) to win a major award. Whatever else I may think of the fact that non-white European women still aren't getting any attention (and recall that there has yet to be a single women of color in translation who has won the Nobel in its entire history), I cannot be disappointed by Tokarczuk's individual win.

But, of course, it's not just that the Academy selected two white Europeans for its prize, there's also the matter of Peter Handke, the 2019 winner.

I've spent days mulling this over and wondering how to address the matter, or indeed whether or not I should. Ultimately, I've never read and Handke and have little desire to do so; I recall seeing a description of one of his books back when I began to read a lot more literature in translation (overwhelmingly by white, European, men authors...) and thinking to myself "meh, sounds stuffy and douchey". I was largely unaware of Handke's controversial - aka awful - support of ethnic cleansing and nationalism prior to his win. But as the news got out, I saw a trickle of criticism from book bloggers, translators, and publishers on my Twitter feed that eventually became a full-on onslaught of horror, finally culminating in a PEN America denunciation. (For the record: When I began writing this post, his Wikipedia page included a paragraph on his controversies and that paragraph no longer appears. I had planned to cite this as proof of Handke's status as a controversial writer; the omission frankly feels even more telling in its clumsy attempt to whitewash Handke's messy status.)

Handke's win feels dirty from a lot of different angles. First, there's the matter of his politics. In a time of rising nationalism (and violence inherently linked to nationalism), what does it mean to give a nationalist-sympathizing, genocide-denying guy a massive prize and an effective endorsement? Separating art from artist is a heavy question I still struggle to answer (further complicated by the fact that I'm Jewish and fun fact, a lot of people in the world and throughout history have desperately wanted me dead), but there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?

Second, there's the identity politics matter. For people who try to argue that the Nobel goes to the most worthy writers, the history of the Nobel is enough to dispute that claim. It is obvious that talented writers from around the world are constantly looked over, whether because of genre, country of origin, language of origin, race, or even popularity (in both directions...). Women in particular have long been looked over, and I can easily name several women writers from around the world who passed away in the past decade alone who deserved the prize far more than a solid third of the actual winners. When the Nobel committee makes the explicit claim to notice and care about the historic imbalance in their award and then continues to give it to white European men, they are trying to have it both ways. Yes, addressing the imbalance in the award is important! they admit. But we're not going to do anything about it if it means that we have to stop awarding the prize to white European men.

I'm left feeling bitter and disappointed. Tokarczuk deserved better than this and deserves praise without an asterisk next to her name, pointing to Handke's controversies (and why, why do women always have to bear the burden of unsavory men?). I also feel like we once again got cheated out of brilliant women writers from around the world who definitely deserve more attention. Marie NDiaye. Yoko Ogawa. Banana Yoshimoto. Han Kang. Maryse Condé. Scholastique Mukasonga. Can Xue. Ambai. Isabel Allende. Nawal El Saadawi. Goli Taraghi. Ece Temelkuran. Minae Mizumura. Yanick Lahens. Ananda Devi. Dương Thu Hương. I haven't read every work these writers have written (not least because... many have not been translated into languages I speak/read in), nor can I vouch that they have not said or done objectionable things in the past as well. But I look at them and know that they have all written excellent, powerful, and life-changing books. I know that each one has contributed to the literary landscape in some form or other. They represent a wide range of cultures, experiences, and stories. And they could all benefit from the attention, money, and respect that the Nobel committee could easily bestow upon them.

The Nobel prize will always anger someone. Sometimes it might be because a winner is too obscure and your favorite didn't win. Sometimes it will be because the writer is too popular and deemed not "literary" enough by some. There's always going to be something! But at the very least, the Nobel committee can stop angering people by picking poorly... and recently, it has been. Unfortunately, it continues to be the most relevant prize in literary consciousness, which means that we readers have to work extra hard to get the word out that it is not actually reflecting on the "best" authors the world has to offer. And we need to push for it to begin to reflect the realities of the world around us. Literature is not (nor has it ever been...) white European men with a handful of English-language writers and the occasional (rare) woman writer. It is time the Nobel prize understood that.