Why it was an American’s turn
18th October 2012 - 12 Midnight Ed Woods
Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, amid allegations of political bias. Ed Woods, from our St Pancras International branch, is disappointed the claims of Cormac McCarthy, author of Pulitzer Prize winner The Road and the highly acclaimed Border trilogy, remain unrecognised.
Each year the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to, according to Alfred Nobel's will, ''the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction''. In 2012 the prize, worth eight million Kroner, or around £740,000 pounds, went to the Chinese writer Mo Yan. Yan, whose first work was published in 1981, was one of the favourites to win amid another year of speculation fuelled in large part by betting patterns and the yo-yoing odds offered on some of the world's best known writers. Despite there being no shortlist and the eventual winner kept a closely guarded secret, bookies offered 8-1 on improbable names like Bob Dylan and even smaller odds on literary superstars like Huraki Murakami.
As always then, the winner remained the only hard and fast thing to be taken from this year's announcement. Look back over the years however and a curious fact arises - no American has won it for 19 years, since Toni Morrison's triumph in 1993. While this is doubtless no great disappointment to the storied nation, on second glance there are compelling reasons why it should have been different this year. If the Nobel Prize really is about merit for a lifetime's achievement, a body of work achieved over decades, then over and above any other writer, in 2012 I believe it was an American's turn.
Let me first explain that this is not a slight on the Academy or Mo Yan's success. The idea that the award is heavily politicised in its decision is just as alien to me as the concept that neutrality really exists in an utterly grey, straight- down-the-middle, sitting-on-the-fence kind of way. The members consider a huge number of factors and a lifetime of work by individuals before selecting their choice for that single accolade and their decision is as individual and valid as that of any other prize-giving.
I've read the work of many of the writers considered favourites but not all of them - considering the open nature of the prize it would be an impossible task anyway. An argument could be made for absolutely anyone, so I feel permitted to pluck a name out of the air and make my case. 'Favourites' this year included Peter Nadas - not well enough represented in Britain although an outstanding novelist, certainly the equal of any European writer today. Haruki Murakami, the bookies' choice until the announcement, is a fine and prolific writer of Japanese novels, uniquely mired in Western influence and genres. Of the Americans, there is the hyper-talented Thomas Pynchon whose work includes Gravity's Rainbow, a behemoth that will be remembered decades from now, and of course Philip Roth, winner of just about every other literary prize on the planet.
Instead it is Cormac McCarthy who I feel deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature 2012. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Most recently The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006. In the 1990s he wrote a trilogy of novels - All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain - the first being my personal favourite. In the tale of young men traversing the wilds of the Southern states and Northern Mexico there is something timeless in his work. He has his precursors, notably William Faulkner and to a lesser extent, Ernest Hemingway, but builds on this tradition. His is a stark realism, imbued with mysticism, bouts of violence and absolutely no hope of redemption. The sparse dialogue always rings true.
Most importantly he does not just present a tale of American life - McCarthy is equally concerned with wider questions. How do we define ourselves when the world we know is changing so quickly around us? In what does our salvation lie, if indeed it is to be found at all? By choosing Cormac McCarthy, I'm presenting a body of work which has no let downs in it - every novel is an individual work of art and part of an oeuvre that has no equal in contemporary letters. For me, he is the most compelling writer alive today and the necessary recipient of the biggest prize in literature.
Still, there's always next year...
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