Literature should not be a Nobel pursuit

Updated: 2012-10-13 08:13

By OP Rana (China Daily)

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Literature should not be a Nobel pursuit

That Mo Yan would win the Nobel Prize in Literature was known, well almost, much before the Swedish Academy announced it, because for the first time China Central Television had been invited to interview the winner. Still speculation was rife, and the bookies seemed to favor Japan's Haruki Murakami and Canada's Alice Munro. But the odds were overwhelmingly stacked in favor of Mo Yan. The reason: American authors Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth (and Bob Dylan) have not been favorites with the judges and Syrian poet Adonis could be ruled out because of the Syrian crisis.

These facts, however, would be obvious to anybody after Mo Yan's win, which certainly calls for celebration in a country that has prized literature for centuries. Literature has been part and parcel of Chinese society from the ancient times down to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the republic period to New China.

The sheer volume, depth, variety and span of Chinese literature in modern times (let alone the mammoth tomes of creation in the earlier periods, for example, the Tang Dynasty which many consider the golden era of arts and literature in China) is mind-boggling.

Not many writers in the world can rival the genius of Lu Xun or Lao She. Most of the world may not know about Shen Congwen, but many of those who have read his Long River and Border Town have compared him to William Faulkner. Then there are Guo Moruo, Lin Yutang, Mao Dun and Ba Jin. The list is long enough to fill up a few pages.

The Swedish Academy either did not know about them or chose to ignore their existence, because for long the rest of the world considered China too backward to produce world-class literature. Well, the Swedish Academy cannot be blamed for that; it has to depend on the analyses and opinions of critics, most of whom are West-centric. These critics, to be fair, cannot be expected to read the works of authors and poets in scores of languages. And many a time a translation fails to convey the spirit and feeling of a novel, short story or poem and, hence, the work loses its importance.

More often than not, the Swedish Academy turns a blind eye to geniuses. Argentine Jorge Luis Borges is an apt example of the academy's royal snub. There are many, many others like Borges in the world of literature.

Besides, the academy sometimes chooses the most undeserving of writers and poets for the prize, giving the short shrift to the greatest of writers. Just a few examples would suffice. The joint 1974 winners Elvyind Johnson and Harry Mortinson were both Nobel Prize judges and controversially beat Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabakov to the prize. Even before that, in 1953, the Swedish Academy surprised even itself by naming Winston Churchill the winner, ignoring American Ernest Hemingway and Spaniard Juan Ramon Jimenez. And the least said about 2000 winner Gao Xingjian the better, for the world knows more than literature was at work in the prize.

The only author, actually more than an author, who paid back the academy in its own coin was Jean-Paul Sartre; the 1964 winner refused the prize.

All said and done, the Nobel Prize carries immense value in the world of literature, especially when it comes to book sales. It can make millions for publishers and turn even writers who were till then unknown to the best part of the world into instant stars. But that does not necessarily mean authors who have not won the Nobel Prize are any inferior to those who have. Nor does that mean a country without a Nobel Prize winner cannot boast of great authors and magnum opuses.

The point simply is that China, a country of great novelists, short-story writers and poets, does not need the stamp of the Swedish Academy to celebrate its literature.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily. E-mail: