Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mirror, mirror has posted a list of winners of "the Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe." The obvious intended discussion point is whether JK Rowling is as worthy of the Nobel as Doris Lessing, but the list makes for an interesting read, as much for the awards that it agrees with as the writers that the list suggests that the Swedish academy has overlooked.

Greatbooksguide suggests that the Nobel got it right with Kipling, O'Neill, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Sartre, Beckett, and Solzhenitsyn (among others), and there are more than a handful of noncontroversial neglected names such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Woolf, Henry James, Kafka, Joyce, and Proust. But Lennon/McCartney? Zane Grey? Ian Fleming? And, my affection for the man aside, Jack Kerouac?

I think that it's interesting that the list carries a more powerful critique of the early 20th Century Nobel winners than the more recent laureates. It's far easier to discern in retrospect whose writing has really mattered than it is to make similar predictions about contemporary writers, and, on some level, it's not as fair to pick on the Scandinavian-centric picks that the Nobel made when it was getting established.

The alternate-universe list becomes more eccentric the closer it gets to the present. I think that 2000 is a good example—the real 2000 laureate, Gao Xingjian, is (was?) fairly unknown in the US. His first English translation wasn't published until 2001. As the alternate-universe pick, however, Haruki Murakami is well-known and respected in the US, but my understanding is that he is not considered as important a writer in his native Japan. Additionally, while it seems like a great idea to consider at least some songwriters as being on the same level as most contemporary poets, it's problematic that all the songwriters honored in the alternate universe write in English.

There's a good argument to be made that at least some genre writing deserves to be considered at the same level as "literature," but the trouble with doing so lies not so much with the writers as with the critics. To an American Baby-Boomer, Bob Dylan is among the highest art, but the Nobel at least tries to consider honoring "literary" writers from all over the world. It would be difficult (but certainly not impossible) to do the same thing with music, lyrics, and most genre fiction, whose auidence, though broad and passionate, is usually much more locally focused than the (admittedly much smaller) audience for literary fiction.

I would use my (and anyone's) local bookstore to support that assertion. While translation in a US bookstore makes up only a small segment of even the fiction/literature section, how many translations can you find in mysteries, romance, or science fiction? (Sure, there are some, but proportionately far fewer, in my experience, than in literary fiction.)

No comments: