October 9, 2008

French Writer Wins Nobel Prize

Never heard of him before today!

The Swedish Academy on Thursday awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a French novelist, children’s author and essayist regarded by some French readers as one of the country’s greatest living writers.
Bookies be damned, it is a Frenchman that wins again. That makes it 14 French, all men, in 108 years of Nobel awards. ( Not sure if the 14 includes 2000 winner Gao Xingjian, who is a Chinese-born French writer*.) There are 10 Americans in that list, it seems and there apparently is a bias against American authors at the Nobel committee, with the Nobel judge and permanent secretary Horace Engdahl recently saying in an interview:
“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."
Oh well... my bet on John Updike or Phillip Roth winning one of these days is not going to happen, I guess! (Unless there is a wider backlash against Engdahl's words and so the Nobel committee hands one out next year to an American just to assuage things. Somehow, I doubt it. The Nobel committee cares too hoots about what the New Yorker or other Americans have to say about their choices...(and that's how it should be.)

Anyways, like Marco Roth writes in the Guardian: "The Nobel prize for literature doesn't really have much to do with literary excellence - and that's not a bad thing."... though calling it some irrelevant prize that clueless Swedes hand out does sound like a case of sour grapes and kinda undermines the fact that the Nobel, despite its roots in the literary hinterlands of Scandinavian backwaters, has become the most prestigious literary award.

We want the award to matter as though presented by angels rather than a few, imperfect Swedes with their own biases and tastes.
If we are shocked to discover that politics or some agenda external to mere aesthetics or "excellence", impinges on the judgment of literary work in an international context, we haven't been paying attention. The history of the prize is tied to Alfred Nobel's own broadly humanitarian aspirations to reward those who "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". Literature will always suffer from this kind of consequentialist standard, and the Swedes recognised this too.
* Coincidentally, I picked up Gao Xingjian's book of short stories: Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather at the public library yesterday.

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