Like a lot of people, I greeted today’s news that Chinese writer Mo Yan has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature with the familiar feeling that the Swedish Academy had me on the back foot. I have never read a word the man has written. I comforted myself with the thin reassurance that at least I’d heard of him — and I’d even seen “Red Sorghum,” a film based on one of his best-known novels!
Unlike a substantial percentage of the back-foot club, however, I’ve got no problem with the Academy’s choice, or its history of selecting purportedly “obscure” recipients for the prize. From the handful of articles and reviews I’ve read in my frantic scramble to get caught up, Mo Yan seems to write the kind of novels I enjoy (and I really did love “Red Sorghum”). “Hallucinatory realism”? “A world of magic, sexual exploitation, ignorance and senseless violence”? Individual stories told against a backdrop of political and social turmoil? Sign me up.
This, it seems to me, is what the Nobel Prize is uniquely suited to do: Call the attention of the wider world to the best living writers of cultures prone to neglect outside their own national borders. Yet each year’s announcement is invariably preceded by much kibitzing about the famous writers who ought to win — Philip Roth is the chief perennial, but Bob Dylan has taken the lead recently — and followed by tantrums when they don’t. Blake Bailey, Roth’s authorized biographer, tweeted: “Mo Yan my ass. #Rothscrewedagain”
The notion that Bob Dylan has ever even been considered for the Nobel Prize in literature seems to have originated at Ladbrokes, a British betting house that will accept wagers on whatever name takes your fancy, especially if you’re virtually guaranteed to lose. As M.A. Orthofer, editor of the Complete Review, a website dedicated, among other things, to championing literature in translation, put it, “No one who has the remotest concept of the Nobel Prize would ever have suggested” that Dylan was a candidate, but “people like the idea of betting on him.” Those bets in turn prompt newspaper stories about Dylan’s rising odds and foster the impression that he’s under consideration.