Carolyn's Noble Prize for Literature
edited: Sunday, November 09, 2003
By Carolyn HowardJohnson
Posted: Saturday, August 09, 2003
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The Nobel committee, by virtue of the sheer volume of unrecognized fiction, misses much that is great!
The Nobel Prize committee has come under criticism over the last decade and I can’t argue with them on their choices for literature. Over the last few years they have recognized authors not only for their literary expertise but also for, as Tim Rutten, a Los Angeles Times staff writer says “an author’s particular relevance to the moral moment in which the world finds itself.”
Because the world constantly “finds itself” mired in prejudice, one would have to assume that the books that are awarded the coveted Nobel would be about intolerance of one kind or another. Last year V.S. Naipul won for his condemnation of sectarianism. Gao Xingjian writes about man’s struggle for individualism in a milieu dominated by governments, politics and other social structures. Gunter Grass writes about the “disavowed and forgotten.” These are simplified descriptions, of course, but the struggle of human kind to live free, joyous lives is a subject worthy of prizes.
We must go back to 1995 to find a Nobel Prize winner who writes in English. (Seamus Heaney’s work may be found at : http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1995/poems-1-e.html. Even those of you who don’t think you like poetry will fall in love.) Heaney is Irish. We have to go clear back to 1993 to find an American (Toni Morrison). The Nobel committee has a world of literature to choose from. Nevertheless, it is my belief that there is much of value that goes unsawrded and even more of value that they do not consider.
So, I am up in arms again. Not because the famous Swedish Academy doesn’t do a fine job but because there are so many brilliant (both sung and unsung) writers who write about the prejudices of our time (if prejudices can indeed even be placed in a given segment of time). Many write it in English so those of us from English-speaking countries (especially those of us with limited language skills) can enjoy the lovely prose in the original. They do it whether they are men or women, old or young, heavy or twig-thin. They do it regardless of their color or religion. I am about to give them my own “Noble (not Nobel) Prize for Literature.”
One might argue that if I exclude other languages, I am practicing one of the prejudices I decry. Though many of my readers may be bi or multilingual, they all, by definition, speak English. That is my only excuse.
My apologies also go to my readers; some of these books have been mentioned in prior columns. My justification is that I did not know I would be writing this column until the Nobels were awarded. Therefore I could not possibly secret these titles away as a surprise for my “Noble Prize for Literature’s” presentation day!
Carolyn’s Noble Prize for Literature
(My criteria are that book must show excellence in use of the English language
and present themes or premises that might help even one reader recognize and curtail
his or her own tendency toward bigotry. The emphasis is on the latter. The list is no special order.)
1. Nobel Prize-Winner Toni Morrison—I cannot think of one of her books in which you will not find shades of discrimination, nor one that is not exquisitely written.
2. First Time Novelist Leora G. Krygier—First the Raven explores the prejudices one people nurture against their own kind.
3. Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird—A story of a small southern community’s bigotry and one family’s courageous struggle against it.
4. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—A classic. The title says it all.
5. Tamin Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York —A memoir that shows how living a divided life may feel isolatory.
6. Kristie Leigh Maguire’s Emails from the Edge—This subsidy-published book reminds us of how it might feel to be viewed only as “a foreigner.”
7. Nora Okja Keller’s Fox Girl—a story set in Korea about alienation
8. Gail Jenner’s Across the Sweet Green Hills —A story of bigotry in Montana in the 1800s.
9. Imre Kertesz’s Fateful—This is this year’s Nobel Prize winner. It is beautifully translated into English.
10. Reuben Ainsztein’s In Lands Not My Own —Published posthumously and only recently, this is a story that was very nearly lost to the world
11. Wayne Karlin’s The Wished for Country –explores how difficult it is to be a community set apart from those around it.
12. Joanne Harris for The Five Quarters of the Orange—A story set in France during the German occupation about an insular community’s cruelty to its own.
13. And, of course, I’d like you to consider This is the Place, my effort at exposing how subtle intolerance can be as corrosive as blatant ones, at revealing how prejudices are often cloaked by family, love and community.
This is a reprint from Carolyn's "Back to Literature" column at www.MyShelf.com. Watch for her picks in January of 2004.