Nobel Prize in Literature

December 13th, 2008

I’m reading My Name is Red, a novel by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.  He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, with three of his novels cited, including this one.  At 500 pages, it’s rather medium-longish, and I’ve worked my way through about a third of it.  So far, it’s proving to be well-written but slow, with a drawn-out, somewhat confused plot full of arcane references that I’m sure he had to look up.  In other words, this is great literature.

Whenever I read books by authors who have won Nobels or other big-time prizes like Pulitzers, I can’t help reflecting on what makes this particular book, or this particular author’s body of work, so much more remarkable than any other.  I mean, let’s face it, winning a Nobel or a Pulitzer sets an author for life and guarantees his place in history.  And, in the case of the Nobel, there’s a hefty amount of cash that goes with the fame–in 2008, about $1.4 million.  As the man said, them ain’t peanuts.

According to Professor Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy and Member of its Nobel Committee,

In My Name is Red, Pamuk uses a sultan’s painters of miniatures in 1590s Istanbul to stage a conflict between Western individualism and Eastern traditionalism. As the novel presents it, the classic Muslim standpoint is that paintings must illustrate familiar stories. To portray only what the eye sees in nature is a blasphemy. … For them, Western portraiture expressed a sinful desire to show pride before God. Anyone who would allow himself to be thus portrayed, believes himself to be singularly important and positions himself at the world’s centre, as does the deliberately original artist with his style. Such a person will no longer bow to authorities but assumes the right to doubt everything and anything.

I guess so.  Maybe the profundity will be clear when I’ve finished the book. 

Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize in Literature (awarded by Swedes) and the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded by Norwegians) are highly political, as opposed to the Nobels in the sciences and medicine.  (Paul Krugman’s Nobel this year in Economics is an exception that proves the rule.)  A list of past winners in all categories shows that glaring difference, clearly discernible by their names and nationalities.  You can figure that out for yourself.

The Nobel Peace Prize, in particular, is so politicized that it barely deserves mention.  Think of Jimmy Carter, whose award, although belated and deserved, was intended as a kick in the knee to George Bush, according to the Norwegian politicians who awarded it; or Al Gore, the politician beloved of left-wing environmentalist nuts the world over; or Yassir Arafat, the left’s favorite terrorist; or Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who plants trees.  But not Ronald Reagan, who with Mikhail Gorbachev was primarily responsible for ending the Cold War, perhaps the greatest contribution to world peace in history.  I’ll admit, many of the laureates are deserving, but in those cases the political nature of the award just happens to favor someone who really has advanced the cause of peace–Nelson Mandela is a good example.  

But, back to the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Even as unlikely a source as The New York Times has speculated on the political nature of the Prize, in a report specifically referencing Pamuk’s award in 2006 and Harold Pinter’s in 2005:  “[Their] views on current political situations led commentators to suspect that the Swedish Academy was choosing its winners in part for nonliterary reasons.” 

Now, I don’t doubt that Pamuk is an admirable and courageous man.  It may help that he comes from a family of wealth and privilege in Turkey or, more importantly, that he is connected to Columbia University and has strong ties to the U.S.  Pamuk was charged in Turkey under an ex post facto law for the crime of “insulting Turkishness” when he said in a 2005 interview, “Thirty thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it.”  Talking about the historical fact of the Turkish genocide of up to a million and a half Armenians in 1915 is something that just isn’t done in Turkey.  It isn’t talked about much anywhere, in fact, largely because of the political clout of Turkey, but you can read the details here (a strong stomach will help).  Under international pressure, Turkey dropped the charges against Pamuk. 

Granted, Pamuk has uncommon moral and physical courage.  But should that be a factor in making him one of the most significant figures in the history of world literature?  I don’t think so.  From what I’ve read so far, he’s no Hemingway, Faulkner, Pasternak, Steinbeck, or Solzhenitsyn. 

Harold Pinter, the British playwright who won the Prize in 2005, is another example of a political winner.  He’s also well-known as a gadabout political activist, most recently opposing the war in Iraq.  He’s called former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair a “deluded idiot” and President George W. Bush a “mass murderer.”  This obviously endeared him to leftists everywhere, including the majority of the Swedish Academy.  Even Pinter recognized the political nature of the Prize, saying, “I’ve been writing plays for about 50 years.  But I am also very politically engaged and I am not at all sure to what extent that factor had anything to do with this award.”  Early in his career, Pinter showed the nature of his intellect, or at least his understanding of who decides what is art.  He set the elite literati aswoon in their posh salons in 1958 when he said,

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.  A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

So, it seems that in order to become a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, at least for the past 30 years or so, you have to be a leftist activist who writes what the elites would consider to be great literature.  That means, for the most part, fairly boring novels.  In fact, their very obscurity makes them prime subjects for discussion at cocktail parties over brie and white wine and in other settings where self-important elites strive to impress each other.  Statistically, it also helps to win the prize if you’re not an American, if few people buy your books, and if you write in a language other than English.

For my part, peasant that I am, I’ll take John Grisham over Orhan Pamuk any day.  But that’s just me.

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7 Responses to “Nobel Prize in Literature”

  1. Zelda |

    Unfortunately, I’ve been very bad about reading fictional novels. The only books of a Nobel Prize winning author I’ve ever read were those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His book “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was well written. It was like he was describing a weird dream. His book “Love In The Time Of Cholera” as about a man obsessed with a woman married to someone else. That was also weird.

    I haven’t heard of this Turkish guy. But let me know what you think of the whole story when you finish the book.

  2. carla |

    I’m in Zelda’s camp. Its rare that I make the time to read fictional novels.

    I am a big admire of Linus Pauling, however. Pauling was a great American scientist and Nobel Laureate–as well as a peace activist. Having participated in much of the military science of WW2, Pauling became gravely concerned about the use of atomic weaponry and the destruction and degradation of humanity by war.

    Pauling was a native Oregonian and one of the great scientific intellectuals of our time.

    He was also a big advocate of Vitamin C…and so am I. 🙂

  3. Kevin |

    Don’t even get me started about Vitamin C… I’m a HUGE fan. Oh, and Pauling had some good things to say too. (grin)

    What struck me as I read this post is the backdrop of Eastern traditionalism v. Western individualism. Largely because “the West” has already gone through it’s own traditionalist phase – more commonly known as The Dark Ages. If we could jump in a time machine and interview Galileo, I’m sure he’d have some interesting things to say about Western traditionalism.

    What’s even more ironic is that in Galileo’s time the elites of the Western world were fascinated by the by the individualism of the ancient Greeks.

    Heh… the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    The nod to Jimmy Carter’s book having been a kick in the knee of Dubya is appropos given how Dubya’s apparent practice of appealing to traditionalist fears as a means of garnering political support.

    Again… the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. Tom |

    I’m with you guys on the Vitamin C business. Not that I could prove it, but it seems to help in avoiding colds, or making them more tolerable, anyway.

    At this point I’m about halfway through Pamuk’s book. His use of traditionalism vs individualism is there, but it’s still not clear that he has a point to make. What’s happening mostly, so far, is some excruciatingly slow and indirect courtship, plus a bit of murdering. Maybe he’s going somewhere with all this, but I don’t have a clue where. Like I said, this is great literature.

  5. doris |

    Vitamin c,yes,great literature?NO. I thought that was what they made you read in school,no? I’ll take Steven King anyday-proving my lack of culture,but if I am reading fiction,I want TO HAVE A GREAT TIME,NOT BE BORED TO TEARS.

  6. Tom |

    Like I said, I’ll take John Grisham. But not King. He scares me.

  7. A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah |


    Rabindranath Tagore was the greatest of all great Bengali writers. But it is sad to note that the learned Bengali readers and writers kept many facts about Tagore’s winning of Nobel Prize in 1913 are kept secret. Some such facts are given below:

    A. Rabindranath Tagore was more than many Nobel Laureates. But his winning of the Nobel Prize was a political consolation for the Hindu terrorist movements launched in Bengal in the early days of the 20th century.

    B. Rabindranth Tagore was not the recommendation of the Nobel Committee. The Nobel Committee named somebody else. The name of Rabindranath Tagore was not even in the short list of the Nobel Committee.

    C. Rabindranth Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize neither as a Bengalee nor as an Indian. He was awarded the prize as an “Anglo-Indian”.

    D. Rabindranth Tagore never made any so-called prize receiving speech.

    E. Rabindranth Tagore only sent a two line prize acceptance message.

    F. The prize was accepted by the British Ambassador and it was delivered to the poet in Calcutta.

    G. It appears from the information, now available, that Rabindranath Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize in consideration of his successful attempt to intermingle the Western Christian-Hindu philosophy.

    I shall very much welcome exact and objective reply from the esteemed readers of this Group.

    I have been planning to publish a very small book on the subject: Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore in 1913: some untold stories. All the points raised in my message are based on facts. But I would like to get more information on the subject. Help from others will greatly help in the publication of the book with more information.

    However, for the information of all concerned, I would like to point out that Rabindranath was a Brahmo ( a reformed group of Brahmins of the so-called Hindu community of India). The word ‘Hindu’ never existed to identify any religion before the emergence of the British Raj in India. It was invented by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in collaboration with the British colonial rulers. This the Britishers did with a view to getting the united massive force together against the defeated Muslim rulers of the then India. As such, until the early last century, we find that 99% civil servants, lawyers, judges, engineers, doctors, professors etc. under the British Raj in India were from the Hindu community only. The fourth class employees like peons, messengers, bearers or guards are not included.

    Brahmos allowed the conversion of even the low caste Sudras. But in fact, all Brahmos were Hindus. This was well understood by the British Rulers of India.

    Rabindranath Tagore was not very vast in literary productions in the first decade of the last century. In fact, excepting the limited 250-copy English edition of Gitanjali, hardly there was any English version of Rabindranath Tagore’s other books. Not to speak of any Asian, until 1913 even any American was not awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Rabindranath Tagore was in the spiritual lineage of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and others. In the lyrical lineage he was obviously reflecting D.L. Roy, Lalon Fakir, Atul Prasad Sen and others.

    Rabindranath Tagore was a pro-British wealthy successor to the vast property left by his grand father Dwarakanath Tagore. In the first decade of the 20th Century he was the leading-most Bengalee intellectual friend of the British Rulers in India.
    During the last decades of the 19th century and in the early 20th century there were popular uprisings, known as the ‘Terroist Movement’ in Bengal. Khudiram Bose was young recruit by such leaders of ‘Terroist Movement’ in Bengal. The British Rulers were very much disturbed by the widespread activities of the volunteers of ‘Terroist Movement’. They needed to pacify the Bengalees. Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore was an attempt in that direction. Rabindranath Tagore was not known to the West in the first decade of the 20thth century; hardly any body could have had access to his English edition of Gitanjali; this is obvious from the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was named in the short list of the Nobel Committee for the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. It was said that Rabindranath Tagore was knwn to the Swidish Academy as an ‘Anglo-Indian poet’ and not either as an Indian or as a Bengalee. In addition, Rabindranath Tagore did not visit Sweden or Norway before or after being awarded the Nobel Prize. The British Ambassador received the prize for and on behalf of Rabindranath Tagore and it was confidentially delivered to Rabindranath Tagore at his Jorasanko residence in Calcutta.
    Had there been no Khudiram Bose or ‘Terrorist Movement’, perhaps there would have been no Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore. Even hundreds of Gitanjali could never open the passage of Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore for Literature in 1913.

    Of course, the high diplomatic circles and political decision makers in London did not like to take any risk and responsibilities and they decided, more or less during the same period, to shift the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911.

    A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    (Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh &
    formerly Assistant Professor of English in
    Jagannath College, Dhaka)
    G.P.O. 351
    Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh

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