Nobel Cause

Who is worthy of judging beauty?

I suppose it is tut-tuting news that one of the keepers of a purposeless secret about the functioning of a rather purposeless organisation spoke his mind about the state of American Literature. I am not quite sure what exactly that (i.e. American Literature) is, but I am amazed at the tirade that one opinion has unleashed. If American Literature is about written works by Americans (defined as an individual with at least 3-4 generations behind him in the US of A) then I am not sure what everyone is cribbing about. Pynchon apart, I don’t think Updike or Oates or most other Americans I have read deserve a Nobel. Just because someone writes a lot shouldn’t make them candidate for a Nobel!! As I have lamented enough, modern writing from the US of A leaves me wondering what on earth is happening to the basic tenets of story-telling. They seem to be ever-absorbed in some gimmick or the other or in justifying every deviation on the grounds of self-expression even at the cost of rightness. To an Asian mind, that is ridiculous and very intrusive.
But my opinion about American writing is not what counts and is largely irrelevant here. What left me amused was the childishness of people all around the world (except for Marco Roth) and the issue they had made of this whole affair. I see a few facets to this issue, and I shall elaborate on them shortly. As a quick preview, these facets can be condensed into the thoughts about individuals or a group of individuals determining the (objective) value of art (in this case, literature), what is literature (as such and according to this individual or group of individuals) and what America has done for literature. Unfortunately, I have no comments to offer about the worth of M. Le Clezio.
I have always had reservations about someone being the appointed judge about the beauty of sunsets. I would never ever subscribe to that no matter how high I hold that individual for his aesthetic sensibilities. To empower a body to be the final judge about beauty, is rather ridiculous. For instance, the Oscar Academy would be extremely uncomfortable had they to answer questions about why one film was chosen over the other nominees for the award. If we get down to technical merit, direction, photography, script, cast, costume, perspective, etc. we could surely make their lives miserable by presenting one counter-argument after another. How well exposed and experienced is the committee? Have they created movies of exemplary worth? Have they earned the reputation of influencing cinema as it stands today? After a point, how can one decide which is more beautiful?
For me the Nobel committee lost all respect when they missed awarding Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov for his contribution to literature. Personally, Nabokov (chronologically after Shakespeare and Gogol, and aesthetically on par with Shakespeare) is the true measure for excellent literature. A committee which cannot award Nabokov either recognises that greatness will always be recognised with or without an award or doesn’t recognise greatness. In either case, the pointlessness of that award is sealed. The diploma, medallion and cash that they give can easily be given by anyone with money and enough say in the media. The Nobel committee for literature cannot be a judge of good writing because they aren’t diverse enough nor do they contain any writers of worth capable of making judgments. If every previously awarded writer is automatically added as a judge, then there is some value to the decision that is announced. If you read what Engdahl (had anyone heard of him before this controversy?) himself said about the authors who were missed out then you might wonder if a life of 78 years is insufficiently short! There were others who deserved this award, but as NYTimes.com had put it: If he doesn’t win the Nobel Prize, it’s only because the Nobel Prize doesn’t deserve him. I cannot agree more.
Even if I hold back my immense respect for Nabokov, I see the entire exercise of isolating one author as being singularly better than the others who are available for an award as a futile and rather presumptuous one. Think about it. There is no one writer on earth who can satisfy the tastes of all. Not even Nabokov. Which brings us to the point that the Nobel is not a representation of the entire world’s preferences but that of a small group of 5 Swedes. Why has this award suddenly taken on the proportions of being the voice of the world? It is but the enactment of the will of Alfred Nobel.
The Americans have always coveted any and every award. If they couldn’t get themselves into any particular award list, they institutionalised their own awards. They are the best as far as marketing is concerned and hence have ended up making their awards appear like God’s word. Somehow they couldn’t better the Nobel Prize and the OBE. They just ended up mocking the latter and yearning for the former. Their yearning seems to have also been marketed well enough to become a fairly global want and hence, the growing worth of a Nobel Prize.
The committee’s decision itself has often been mired in controversy. There have been a few recipients who seem to have won it for reasons other than literary excellence. This is entirely expected as this is a committee of human beings functioning within their human limitations and inclinations. Hence, I did not make much of Engdahl’s statement respecting the fact that he was as human as friends of mine who consider Ayn Rand rude or Ms. Woolf tedious. He presented his views which are partly justified (America doesn’t translate much, because it doesn’t make much business sense).
As a member of the committee, should he have made a public statement? That is for the committee to worry and not for the Americans! The gravamen of all American outcries was that their literature was not parochial/insular and simultaneously they argued for literature’s worth being demonstrated even in parochial themes. In one breath they resented being called parochial and fought for the right to be parochial as that too leads to good literature. They cited their own Nobel laureates (Steinbeck, Faulkner) for being parochial and recipients and exclaimed loud about how far from insular they have been. Some noted figures, even offered Engdahl a reading list. This outrage is expected from a population that is heavily dependent on external recognition and praise. If there must be a difference between European writers and their American counterparts, it would be this. M. Le Clezio might have continued writing and died unknown, unheard had he not won the Nobel. I doubt whether France would have made any noise!
I am not sure whether the American literati are decided about their objection to Engdahl’s comment. They object to being called parochial and insular but cite laureates who have been just that. It is like saying: “I am not fat, but you have had fat people win your beauty pageant so why are you complaining about my being fat; but I am not fat and you have had fat people win…” Then they object to Engdahl’s remark about Americans not “participating in the big dialogue of literature”. Frankly, I do not know what that is! What on earth is the big dialogue of literature? Some Kwame Anthony Appiah (the name sounds South Indian) retorted with a “The big dialogue of literature isn’t just going on in Paris and Frankfurt … I assume even Engdahl agrees it is not centered on Stockholm” but what is that big dialogue. It is like someone saying that the Loch Ness monster is not to be found in New York and the residents objecting to it not being found in Boston or Paris or Tokyo. Well, yes, it can’t be found anywhere until we identify what that really is! Why do we need a big dialogue of literature when literature itself seems to be absconding!!? Then the Americans are mumbling incoherently about the “don’t translate enough” thingy. I am not sure whether that is a complaint against publishers or authors. If someone translated several works of a German author, who is to be awarded, the translator or the author? And is this a problem with publishers not commissioning translations or translators not being interested? But what does that have to do with the writers writing novels!? Even here Nabokov shines with his translation of Alice in Wonderland!! Amazing genius, Nabokov! I so wish I had him as my teacher.
All this brings me to my often-asked question: What is literature? If it is merely a body of written work then any prolific writer could contend for an award for literature. If it is mere popularity of a (body of) written work then Ms. Rowling could win one too, as much as Mr. Deepak Chopra. If it is, as the Nobel committee feels, a weapon to cleave ignorance and raise awareness and the need for involvement in the reader, then I suppose several prolific journalists could be on the shortlist. If it is art for art’s sake (like a sunset, which doesn’t care whether anyone is watching or not) then the notion of judging such works is ridiculous. If we are to recall Alfred Noble’s whim then we should note what he says in general about the prizes:

…the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind…

and in particular about the characteristics of the literature award:

…one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction…

Literature to benefit mankind is a banausic pursuit and doesn’t do much justice to literature per se. If I have no political leaning, no humanitarian interests, no views on the prevailing trends in the markets or in society, then I can be Shakespeare and not get the Nobel Prize ever. Whatever did Don Quixote, Lolita and Macbeth ever provide to improve the affairs of bipeds on earth? Literature, in my opinion, was never meant for that.
I am then let to suffer my confusion about what is an “ideal direction”. Is it something that furthers in a man’s breast the unabated thirst for producing literature that can excite another alien soul? Or is it something that lets man speak for all men around him through means of a story? What if I have so much to say which other men do not think? Would I then not have produced a body of literature?
I really believe that the Nobel committee should make a clear statement that they are merely enacting a will, arriving at decisions based on their limited prowess and admit to ascertaining to literary value of a particular nature which caters to their sensibilities. Missing this, there is bound to be some confusion and a lot of noise regarding the real role of the Nobel Prize in the world of literature.
And finally, I would really question America’s role in furthering the essence of literature. Let us be clear that having several American authors on shelves of bookstores in several countries does not tell anything about their contribution to literature as much as it has to say about the marketing might (although Appiah believes otherwise!). America believes strongly in marketing and in capitalism. That salesman’s instinct extensively cloaks the world of letters too. I have read several critics and teachers of fiction (in America) provide recommendations about structuring the draft in order to have the “biggest bang” for the reader. One often hears about the reader not having enough time and hence the first page or even the first paragraph requiring to be that dose of adrenaline or LSD which will hook the reader enough to make them buy (not appreciate it, not read it and recommend it to another person, not read it and get brutally possessive of it but just buy) it. This pressure of publishing only that which will sell like hot cakes and become a fad and which can go on to become a movie and sell memorabilia is all that seems to motivate the industry. This pressure also reaches other countries where literature was created and published for literature’s sake. Read this.
America gave the world a lot of MFA courses in the hope to make literature more serious a pursuit in that land. America has given tonnes of literary magazines where writers can publish their works. America has given hundreds and thousands of writing competitions, workshops, retreats and the like where writing and literature can flourish and nurtured. America has invented several schemes where someone can make a lot of money out of a few bunch of wanna-be or already-been writers. America talks in terms of writing contracts and novel advance amounts. Everyone does so nowadays, though I strongly believe that it was the brainchild of the Americans. America has created opportunities for writers and people who wish to run a business with the produce of these writers. They instill in their writers the need to cater to larger audiences and “sex things up”. They have Writer’s Markets books and a zillion books on how to write! The market is abuzz with book signing tours. Any and every ploy to gain greater financial mileage from the written work is adopted and improved upon. The same book is priced higher because it has an author’s signature on it. The contents of the story within are the same! This is the publishing market in America. For the number of MFAs turned out, a paltry few are actually heard of in the world outside of the US of A. Some of them pay their MFA debt with a book or two and then they are out of steam. Colleges claim that their students receive book contracts even before they graduate, but how many people have even heard or read these writers!? America can churn out several writers and publishing institutions, but what has it contributed to literature?

If we now shift our gaze to what American writers of the past several decades have given then it can be summarised as the free hand to colloquialise writing and story telling. This is not restricted to the dialogues that characters might indulge in, but also the right to justify everything in the name of “fashion of the moment”. Thus was born gay writing, black writing, flash fiction, SMS fiction, modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism and the whole array of jargon which didn’t bother to uphold the basic framework of telling a good and interesting (new, thought provoking, change in perspective, rich, etc.) story. Nabokov always gave me a story (and he is not American). Shakespeare always gave me a story (and thank god! he is not American). Fitzgerald always gave me a story although he started employing Americanism in his works. He never won the Nobel nor did he receive much recognition while he lived. The present day writers are too absorbed in being intellectual or different or elitist without bothering to be writers. That is where I see American literature. I do not have a present day work which I can compare against Ada or Ardour. I do not have a present day work for which I will readily trade Mrs. Dalloway. I do not see any brilliant literature which leaves me speechless. I do not see any current work from the American continent which I can consider to be wonderful literature.
Does this mean that there is literature only in non-American works from non-American writers? I would disagree. I fail to find even one book which was written in the last, say, 20 years which I would hold close to me and read it over and over again. Point is, American literature is far more driven by the market, media and pop culture than is literature outside America. Undoubtedly, other countries are catching on and giving us “One night at the call centre” and the like, but America is singularly focused on money and getting it fast unlike most other nations. They will not even spare the arts for that. They will dumb-down (quite an American phrase) and do anything that it takes to sell and make money. If the art itself cannot be modified, then add on some cheerleaders and gizmos and get the media to call it stuff that is only for the truly great souls (everyone wants to be that). Do anything it takes to sell and write only that which can sell. That is where I think American Literature and the rest of the world differs. That is why I think it would be extremely difficult for an American to win the Nobel for what it represents today. It would also be difficult for an American to win an award given for the greatest act of revealing the soul of literature.
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3 thoughts on “Nobel Cause

  1. “For me the Nobel committee lost all respect when they missed awarding Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov for his contribution to literature.”hear! hear!

  2. Brilliant! – a thorough analysis indeed. # As to Nabokov, there too I agree wholeheartedly; I had a few weeks back read ‘Lolita’ and ‘The Eye’ back to back and couldn’t wonder enough at the unparallelled intelligence behind the contours of the story itself, let alone the sheer beauty of expression and choice of words. A real regret that he did not get all the awards in all the worlds.# As to the Nobel prizes, human beings need to celebrate some thing or the other – festivals, pujas, awards, functions. And life goes on…

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