The link below is to an article that looks at the shortlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize for Best Fiction in Translation.
Heather Rose has won the 2017 Stella Prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional exploration of the power of art to transform individual lives, written in exquisite prose, with rare and subtle insight.
Brenda Walker, Chair of the judging panel, said:
It is rare to encounter a novel with such powerful characterisation, such a deep understanding of the consequences of personal and national history, such affection for a city and the people who are drawn to it, and such dazzling and subtle explorations of the importance of art in everyday life.
Rose’s novel centres on Serbian artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance piece that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout the work, Ambramović sat perfectly still at a table in the museum’s atrium, with bright lights shining down and around her, while spectators took turns to sit opposite. As each visitor sat, Abramović lifted her face and maintained eye contact.
Within days, people began crowding the atrium to watch, the lines frequently spilling out onto the street. Some gathered overnight or in the early hours before the museum opened. Occasionally the sitters cried.
Rose’s novel subtly explores the individual lives of fictional characters in the audience, all of whom are transformed by the strange intimacy of the work. At its centre is Arky Levin, a music composer who is emotionally cut off from life.
He wasn’t sure why he needed to keep returning to the sidelines of this strange performance, but he kept finding himself taking the train, walking in the door, climbing the stairs, taking his place by the white line. The atrium was a magnet, or maybe it was Abramović. Something about this was important, but he couldn’t say why.
In Rose’s novel, chance conversations with strangers offer rare and disarming insights not only into the emotional lives of the characters, and their often tragic situations, but also into our own yearning for “some new idea of life” – a more authentic kind of intimacy or connection in our disconnected, media-saturated world.
In a list that included significant and moving books by two writers, Georgia Blain and Cory Taylor, who have both died since the publication of their works, the choice to award Rose’s novel could not have come easily to the judging panel.
Taylor’s book, Dying a memoir, genuinely broke new ground in writing powerfully and with astonishing clarity about a subject that is rarely treated with such effect. Blain’s novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, is the final achievement of a mature writer whose work spoke clearly and in a quietly profound way to a whole generation – my generation – of women.
But Blain and Taylor would have been the emotional choice. And objectivity is – perhaps – not possible in the face of such calamity. I am uncertain. But I do think there should be a special place in literature for books that do some real work in the world.
The Museum of Modern Love is Heather Rose’s seventh book. Her previous novels include White Heart (1999), The Butterfly Man (2005) and The River Wife (2009). She is co-author (with Danielle Wood) of the Tuesday McGillycuddy series for children, published under the pen name Angelica Banks. She won the Davitt Award in 2006, and her novels have been shortlisted for the Nita B. Kibble Award and the Aurealis Awards, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award.
Rose joins previous Stella winners including Carrie Tiffany, Clare Wright, Emily Bitto and Charlotte Wood.
There are certain books that have the knack of getting under your skin. This is why George Bernard Shaw declared Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit to be a far more “seditious” text than Karl Marx’s Das Capital.
What he was getting at is the power of books to work on your emotions. The intellect can be too cold an instrument to engender empathy, to bring people who are distant from you into your “circle of concern”. And it is precisely this, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, that matters for the pursuit of social justice.
In 2017, the Stella Prize judges have again come up with a shortlist of books that will engage your brain, but also your heart. They illuminate all the aspects of life that make us frail and vulnerable – sickness, dying, inequality – realities that many of us would prefer to ignore.
Two of the remarkable writers shortlisted, Cory Taylor and Georgia Blain, have died since the publication of their work: Blain of brain cancer; Taylor of melanoma-related cancer. And yet their books – alongside all those on this list – fasten our attention on the means to live better, more ethically, and with greater generosity. It is in the smallest things, in embracing everyday joys and sorrows, that we can learn to live large.
These are books that matter because they show us how to live in desperate times.
Let me draw them to your attention, one by one.
Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog
Hilary is a 70-year-old filmmaker, dying of cancer, determined to choose the moment and manner of her death. She has not told her daughters, Ester and April, about her illness or her plans. Ester is the mother of young twins, a family therapist whose consulting rooms contain a world of pain – “post-natal depression, school aversion, relationship crisis, death, and loneliness”. Ester is estranged from her sister April, a once famous singer who never realised her potential, and from her one time husband, Lawrence, who has lied and cheated in his work.
The action unfolds in the space of a single rainy day – ending in the mauve light of dusk, “between a wolf and a dog”, a place filled with ambiguity and irresolution. Here, like Hilary’s last film – a “seemingly random scatter of images” – the characters find “narrative order”.
Blain is a quietly profound writer with an astonishing eye for the ways in which human beings hurt and heal one another. This, her final novel, addresses the significant questions of life, “what to keep, what to discard, what clings despite all efforts to dispel it, and what slides away”. It is modern, unflinching, and unsentimental.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race
Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family comes from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.
There is an utterly transfixing, yet deeply disturbing moment in this memoir in which the young Maxine, growing up in suburban, middle-class Australia, believes that she is turning white.
In a realist, not magic realist work, the fervently desired “miracle … quietly brewing” on her skin, turns out to be a rare skin condition, diagnosed after a trip to the dermatologist’s office. What the poignant humour of the memoir conceals is the extraordinary violence of a society that would cause a child to want this transformation.
Clarke’s story charts the experience of everyday racism, tracing the lives of her British-Caribbean parents on their journey to a better life. This ideal life is turned upside down by shredded school books, abusive notes left in bags and pencil cases, and the hapless ineffectuality of teachers and school administrators.
Positive experiences seem few and far between: her friend Jennifer’s kind words written in her album, or the high school teacher who had the foresight to advise Maxine that the things she’d been told in primary school were as “bizarre as I’d suspected”. It takes courage to speak out again and again on issues that many of us would prefer to think did not exist. The book soars above its subject matter, demonstrating humanity in the face of the inhuman.
Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident
Emily Maguire’s novel centres on the sexual assault and murder of a young woman in a tough-talking, truck-stop town midway between Sydney and Melbourne. It is in the form of a thriller, but the author is perhaps less interested in seeking out the murderer than studying the town’s reaction.
Chris Rogers, the victim’s sister, is an astonishing character, reeling from the breakdown of her relationship to the love of her life; the death of her mother, and the murder of her sister. Chris struggles with men, alcohol and society’s obsession with cleavage. Then there is May Norman, a city-based journalist who arrives in Strathdee to cover the murder, and who, like Chris, is no stranger to the sexual double standard through which women – and not men – are judged for their conduct.
This novel tackles the insidious idea that rape is “never simple” but a “murky and confusing” situation in which the “lines of consent” are “blurred”. Maguire has a keen eye for the practices that excuse, tolerate and trivialise sexual violence, and for the language of misogyny that demeans women, blaming the victim for what she wore, what she did, or where she went.
What starts out as a realist venture ultimately lands in the territory of the gothic. Ghosts drift over scorched landscapes, and the bodies of murdered women rise up to haunt the living. “It’s always the men,” says the local historian. “I’ve never had a female hear the scream.” The novel’s title is, of course, ironic – it turns out that the violent death it investigates is not an isolated incident at all.
Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love
If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us. Art won’t matter one iota. You can’t write your way alive, or paint your way out of death.
Against the odds, this is exactly what Heather Rose achieves in her startlingly original and strangely beautiful novel. It is built around the 75-day performance piece by Serbian artist Marina Abramović that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.
Rose’s novel has a crystalline structure, tracing the lives of the characters who are transformed by the artwork. At its centre is Arky Levin, an emotionally-crippled composer who is cut off from life: from his daughter Alice, a medical student, and his wife, Lydia, an architect, facing the final stages of a potentially fatal illness in a nursing home without him.
Arky is joined at the performance by Jane Miller, an art teacher, who is mourning the death of her husband, Karl. There is also Brittika, a student; Healayas, a journalist assigned to cover the final days of the performance, and Danica – the ghost of Marina Abramović’s mother – who drifts, unsurprisingly, through its pages.
The unexpected oddity of the characters and their situations, and the luminous intensity of the language, marks out a philosophical territory that will be familiar to readers of Milorad Pavić, Dubravka Ugrešić or Danilo Kiš. This is an astonishingly beautiful book. In a culture that incessantly questions the worth and relevance of art for life, the novelist mounts a defence that is all the more astonishing for being successful.
Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre
De Saint Phalle’s memoir is narrated through the eyes of a child who is beguiled and bewildered by her parents’ relationship, and the secret they appear to be hiding. They lead a fabled Parisian existence, always at some distance from their child. Her mother crosses herself frequently, talking incessantly about “the nuns” and what they might think. Her parenting mainly consists of reeling off long verses from The Odyssey.
Saint Phalle’s father regales her with tales of Napoleon, and could “convince me that Karl Marx was a practising Catholic” or “a bird that the sky is full of water”. He appears and disappears in the child’s life, for no apparent reason. A string of unknown aunts, cousins and siblings also arrive and depart unannounced, accentuating the book’s unstated sense of loss and abandonment, and the adults’ lack of awareness that a child may require a little more in the way of stability or commitment.
Written in soft, cloud-like prose, with a sense of elegy, this book is finally about the power of stories to conjure hope and possibility, and impart a sense of acceptance.
Cory Taylor, Dying a memoir
My suicide note was by way of apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ I wrote. ‘Please forgive me, but if I wake up from the surgery badly impaired, unable to walk, entirely dependent on other people to care for me, I’d prefer to end my own life.
Cory Taylor did not finally choose to take her life. Ultimately, she feared the trauma such a death would have inflicted on other people. Suicide, she writes, remains shrouded in a sense of “mental angst, hopelessness, weakness, the lingering whiff of criminality”.
In short, the problem is not hers but ours. We have “lost our common rituals and common language for dying,” becoming a society that only understands death, as “a form of failure”, as Taylor’s doctors seem to do. But living longer also means dying longer, and because of this the dying “are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been”.
Taylor had already seen what it meant to die “badly”, witnessing her parents’ long, drawn out deaths from dementia in a nursing home. And so the desire to choose the way you die – assisted dying – becomes a source of comfort to her and a means of facing the things that are most terrifying about death – its total randomness, and our lack of control.
What is truly profound about this book is that – though it ought to be harrowing – it is astonishingly easy, if not strangely uplifting, to read. In part, this is because the narrative voice is so gentle, and tightly controlled. Every scene has a radiant quality; it glows.
The memoir ends with a “coming into dying”, a kind of effloresce that occurs at the edge of life – “the edge of words”. Images take over: “an over-exposed home movie footage of a girl with a dog in dappled sunshine, a car speeding down the road.” And then “The jet takes off. A kookaburra sits on a branch laughing.”
Taylor does not speak of death so much as she shows it to us, leaving the reader with an inexpressible sense of gratitude. This is writing that matters.
The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize will be announced in Melbourne tonight.
The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes have just been announced, and this year’s winners of the prestigious award include Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre for his investigative report on the drug companies that flooded West Virginia with opioids and New York Times Magazine writer C.J. Chivers for his article about a veteran of the war in Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.
I’ve done research on award-winners for some time, analyzing Pulitzers granted since 1995 (the first year for which award-winning stories are available through the organization’s online archive). In studying the winning stories, we’re able to see what gets recognized as good journalism.
My research reveals something surprising: What distinguishes Pulitzer Prize-winning stories is not only painstaking journalistic work on important social issues, but also the use of emotional storytelling.
This is surprising because U.S. journalism has long championed its objectivity. And because objectivity tends to be seen as emotionless, emotional storytelling tends to be viewed as anathema to good journalism.
The winning stories, however, upend this narrative, showing that it’s possible to retain objectivity and also stir the feelings of readers.
An objective framework
The journalistic goal of objectivity first emerged around the end of the 19th century. It was motivated, in part, by a desire to broaden newspaper readership base by asserting the independence of the press from political parties and ideologies. And in order to maintain objectivity, the thinking went that journalism should be based on cold, hard facts. Journalists needed repress their own views and feelings.
According to standard practice of news reporting, the information should be delivered in an “inverted pyramid”-style lead paragraph, telling readers the most important facts first. The idea is that the objective style sends a strong signal about the independence and trustworthiness of journalism – something that, in the age of fake news, may be more important now than ever.
However, the objective style of journalism has been criticized for its dullness, for “freeze-drying the topic and manufacturing boring journalism.”
Instead of relying on the edicts of objectivity, award-winning journalism draws heavily on telling personal stories about people caught up in news events. My research shows that across hard news award categories – feature, explanatory, international, national, public service and investigative reporting – Pulitzer Prize winners eschew the standard “inverted pyramid.” Instead, they’ll often rely on what journalists refer to as an “anecdotal lead.”
An anecdotal lead draws the reader into a story with wider sociopolitical implications by illustrating how it affects a particular individual or group.
We see it in the winner of this year’s feature writing award, C.J. Chivers’ “The Fighter,” which shows the horrors of war by telling the story of one marine’s descent into violence after his service in Afghanistan:
“Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit. It was a few minutes after 2 a.m. on April 13, 2014. Siatta had just forced his way into a single-story home in Normal, Ill., a college town on the prairie about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. A Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a 24-year-old freshman studying on the G.I. Bill at the university nearby, Illinois State. He had a record of valor in infantry combat and no criminal past.”
Similarly, the Associated Press won the coveted Public Service Pulitzer last year for a series exposing the grueling labor conditions in the seafood industry. The series opened with the experience of Burmese slaves forced to work in Indonesia:
“The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home. Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks – laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.”
By using personal stories to elicit empathy for individuals, these stories all enable us to understand how real people are caught up in the large, bewildering forces that drive our world.
Of the stories I analyzed, more than three in five used anecdotal leads, while just under one in five drew on the conventional inverted pyramid. Stories of individuals caught up in the news were featured in 62.4 percent of stories.
It’s a trend that has been remarkably stable since the mid-1990s.
This type of storytelling is just one of several markers of what I have referred to as a “strategic ritual of emotionality”: an institutionalized and systematic practice of journalists infusing their reporting with emotion.
However, this doesn’t mean that the journalists write about their own emotions. Instead, they “outsource” emotions to the people whose stories they tell. According to my research, stories often use emotional language – for example, quoting worried investors, frightened children, hopeful villagers or anxious parents – but never in reference to the journalist’s emotions. What this suggests is that award-winning journalism is able to both maintain its allegiance to objectivity and tell emotional stories.
I’m not the first to notice the emotionality of award-winning journalism. For example, the journalist and academic Susan Shapiro has criticized the “sob sister” style of journalism which of is “calculated to snag readers by the emotions and not let them go until they burst, on cue, into tears.”
What my research suggests, however, is that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism’s use of emotional storytelling is not merely focused on emotional appeals for their own sake. Rather, eliciting empathy from readers enables journalism to render abstract and complex events understandable and relatable.
In a world where our experiences and backgrounds are so varied, this type of storytelling is indispensable. And if journalism can successfully tap into universal emotions to bridge divides and elicit mutual understanding, such an achievement truly deserves an award.
In January 2016, I began working with The Stella Prize to set up their first ever Diversity Count. This meant widening their count of books reviewed according to the author’s gender to examine how issues of race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality affected the rate of books reviewed by women.
Until 2015, there’d been no recognition of these various intersections. Like the organisation VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts in the US, Stella had concentrated its early counts on the male/female binary and, as in the US, this began to annoy women whom the industry defines not only by their gender, but also by their race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or gender-identity.
And Stella, which not only performs the count, but also awards The Stella Prize to the best book published by an Australian woman, has also come under increasing critique by women of colour about the whiteness of the prize’s longlists.
Undertaking the Stella Count is laborious and fairly crude work. Someone has to sit down and sift through newspapers and microfiches with a notepad and a running tally of the female and male names of authors whose work is reviewed.
That is, the distinction rests on name alone. This works to a degree, though not always; think of Lionel Shriver, JK Rowling (names that don’t reflect a gender) as well as authors who are gender-queer. And it doesn’t work at all if you’re taking into consideration race, ability and sexuality. It is difficult to look at a female name on a book and assess whether or not the author is a member of the LGBTI or queer community or if she has a disability.
It may be easier to distinguish race or ethnicity by a name, but this is fraught territory for a number of reasons, not least because names lie. Then what? In the case of race, do you look up pictures of all authors and assess the colour of their skin? Do you search for non-British sounding names? How do you tell?
So, after much discussion between myself and the Stella Count Coordinator, Veronica Sullivan, we designed a survey for women-identifying authors who had their work reviewed in 2015.
This was long and often difficult work. We set up a public forum for members of the writing community to give their feedback on drafts of the survey and also established a consultative committee, which had input into the final version of the Diversity Survey.
Then, after many months, we sent the survey out to writers. When the results came back they were underwhelming and statistically insignificant. This broke our hearts a little. But then I began to think about why we had such a small uptake from those we’d surveyed.
Too late in the game
In the case of race and ethnicity (the qualifiers I feel I am best placed to speak about), I have a feeling that counting reviews comes too late in the game. I would guess that the Australian publishing industry simply does not publish enough books by women who are not white, but there are no figures for this.
For example, thanks to a recent report from Macquarie University we know that within the genre of fiction in Australia, 65.2% of literary fiction writers, 76.2 % of genre fiction writers and 86.9% of children’s book authors are women. This makes those graphs showing that men get far more reviews than women all the more infuriating. But, as yet, we don’t have the figures for racial or ethnic diversity.
How many Indigenous writers are published each year? How many non-white writers are published? And what kinds of books are being published?
Part of this lack, I think, comes from constraints placed on writers who are “othered” by the industry. For example, I think that it is probably easier for an indigenous author to be published if they write about epic struggles, rather than breezy romantic comedy. Likewise, I think that migrant writers will have an easier time getting into print if they follow the well-established trope of the happy, grateful migrant.
American author Morgan Parker writes that “we often find ourselves either being asked to ‘emphasize’ (read: exoticize) our identities (‘I love your writing about race,’ one editor told me. ‘Do you have anything else like that?’)”. And while Parker is speaking of the US, I think the same rules apply in Australia.
Safe, exotic, far away
It seems to me that the job of Indigenous writers and other writers of colour is to keep themselves and their stories at the margins of Australian literary culture. Safe, exotic, far away.
This begs questions about representation and what this means for a national literature. I listened to Indigenous author Jane Harrison speaking at the Diverse Women Writers Workshop in September and she pointed out that while Australia’s Indigenous population is (now) only about 2.44%, Australian Indigenous writing ought to make up a much larger percentage of our national literature, as our national literature should reflect Australian cultural heritage.
She’s right, of course. Toni Morrison writes that in the US the canon is,
unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence – which has shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of culture – has no significant place or consequence in the origin or development of that culture’s literature.
The Whiteness of the literary canon means that our ideas of good and bad writing are very narrow and, often, exclusionary.
In Australia, as in the US, only certain stories are allowed to take centre stage in our literary culture and the universal subject is still presumed to be a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual and fully-abled male. The more deviations from this (limited and highly problematic) notion of personhood you possess, the more estranged from the centre you become.
As Australian poet Lia Incognita writes:
work that draws from non-Anglo cultural references befuddles institutions (festivals, venues, funding bodies) whose understanding of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is structured around Western practice.
Does this mean that the Diversity Count is doomed? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Failures teach us that we have to look harder for answers. For me this entails a lot more quantitative as well as qualitative work, which comes at the stage of publication, rather than at the reviewing stage.
I’d like to undertake a comprehensive demographic survey of the Australian publishing industry (like those that Publisher’s Weekly perform in the US), examining both those people who work within the industry, as well as the authors who get published.
At the same time we need to look through our syllabuses in high-schools and universities and think about the kinds of stories that are upheld about non-white people in Australian Literature. By including a multitude of voices to speak fully and freely about the Australian experience, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Natalie will be online for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Tuesday, 13 December, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.
The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2016. Did you read any of them? Do you intend to read any of them? Are they worthy of their place in your opinion? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker prize, becoming the first American to win the award since it was opened up to authors outside the Commonwealth in 2013. Most won’t yet have heard of the 54-year-old author of The Sellout, a satire of US racial politics. Because if one thing united this year’s shortlist, it was the lack of literary celebrity.
As the Man Booker website itself commented, of the six authors shortlisted, only Levy had even been heard of before in Booker circles. All were on the list on the literary merit of their books. But celebrity such as the Booker changes all this.
Literature is generally held to be the opposite of popular culture, something that requires solitude and sustained engagement with words and ideas beyond the everyday. So its relationship with celebrity, that most visual and ephemeral of phenomena, is in some ways unique.
It is certainly true that even a very famous writer is unlikely to pack out a football stadium, although the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, coupled with his signature failure to acknowledge it, must make the literary establishment check their assumptions about both literature and celebrity. But what is peculiar about literary celebrity is that it is not about “the literary” at all. It is about our obsessions with the biographical person.
Enter the author. Following the announcement of any major literary prize in the UK and Europe, the immediate focus falls on the author’s biography. In the case of Elena Ferrante, as we have recently seen, this public hunger for the personal can suppress pretty much everything else, including the actual writing. Although Ferrante’s efforts to keep her private person out of the public eye are as extreme as the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti’s distasteful obsession with tracking her down, her dislike of the celebrity machine is shared by the many other authors who also try to shift attention back to their books.
Beatty clung to his after the first awkward minutes during which he foundered on the podium after winning the prize, clearly uncomfortable with having to share his immediate thoughts and emotions with the international media. “Maybe I should talk about the book a bit,” he suggested. But his book will not hide him now. Herta Müller’s claim that it was her books that won the Nobel Prize in 2009 could not do anything to stop speculation about her hairstyle and choice of dress doing the rounds in the international broadsheets.
Beatty will also have to get used to the invariable discussion of the cash, and whether it is really desirable for one author to hit the jackpot at the exclusion of everybody else. Mention of money sullies the literary for some.
All of this could be uncomfortable for Beatty, who told the Booker dinner guests of how he cried with joy in front of readers in Detroit some years back when he read aloud from his work for the first time. He had realised just how perfectly it replicated the language in his head. This touching tale from an author who loves his craft made up for his being, in his own words, “woefully underprepared” for speaking as a celebrity at the gala dinner.
Not so the publishers, who have been working up to this for months and will now take every opportunity they can to push their product with shiny stickers and prime displays, just as the laws of celebrity require. Beatty should expect to have numerous meetings with numerous publicists lined up to expedite sales at home and abroad. He may start to feel a little bit like Beyoncé. Unlike Beyoncé, however, literary celebrity doesn’t travel. This could be his writerly salvation.
Although the English-speaking book market is huge and highly influential, it is still just one geographically-bounded market, and not a very cohesive one at that.
Julian Barnes has a strong following in the UK. But he is not such a big deal in the US, where he is (justifiably) described as particularly British. Jonathan Franzen is an A-list literary celebrity in New York, and he’s pretty famous in the UK, but the further east he travels, the more he is in need of mediators. While still a well-known face in Germany, he mainly goes there to bird watch.
Travelling back the other way, Joël Dicker’s French blockbuster The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair sold 2m copies in Europe, but bombed in the US. Just 13,000 of Penguin’s 125,000 copies sold on its much trumpeted launch, and reviews quickly turned negative. Routinely accosted in his home town of Geneva, he is safe in New York.
Can Beatty take some comfort from these regional quirks that accompany even bestsellers? “I love being lost,” he quipped on the stage as he searched for words. “It’s the only way I get anywhere.” He has been found for English readers, but once his book starts to travel to other places, there are no guarantees that the same piece of writing will arrive as set off. There could be an escape route here.
Readerships are diverse, knowledge and expectations are different, and the more mediators are needed (translators, foreign-language editors, international rights departments), the more the book becomes detached from its biographical author. Some famous authors make it on a global stage, for sure. But there is often remarkably little left of the original author by then.
So here’s a plan for Beatty. He can take the money and settle down to write somewhere where English is not the primary language. He doesn’t have to deny the literary establishment entirely like Bob Dylan, but he could look to put more of the rest of the world on the literary map. Not by selling books there, but by writing them. That would be another kind of sellout – one that might just make people stop and think.
Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the bookies’ favourite for the second year to win the Nobel prize in literature. But singer songwriter Bob Dylan won it for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But, as Kenyan academic Peter Kimani tells The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina, this doesn’t take the sheen off one of Africa’s greatest living writers.
Who is Ngugi wa Thiong’o?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is regarded as one of Africa’s greatest living writers. He grew up in what became known as Kenya’s White Highlands at the height of British colonialism. Unsurprisingly, his writing examines the legacy of colonialism and the intricate relationships between locals seeking economic and cultural emancipation and the local elites serving as agents of neo-colonisers.
The great expectations for the new country, as captured in Ngugi’s seminal play, The Black Hermit, anticipated the disillusionment that followed. His fiction, from the foundational trilogy of Weep Not, Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, amplify those expectations, before the optimism gives way in Petals of Blood, and is replaced by disillusionment.
What sets Ngugi above and apart from the hundreds of other African writers?
African fiction is fairly young. Ngugi stands in the continent’s pantheon of writers who started writing when Africa’s decolonisation gained momentum. In a certain sense, the writers were involved in constructing new narratives that would define their people. But Ngugi’s recognition goes beyond his pioneering role: his writing resonates with many across Kenya and Africa.
One could also recognise Ngugi’s consistency at churning out high-quality stories about Africa’s contemporary society. This he has done in a manner that illustrates his commitment to equality and social justice.
He has done much more in scholarship. His treatise, Decolonising the Mind, now a foundational text in post-colonial studies, illustrates his versatility. His ability to spin the yarns while commenting on the politics that goes into literary production of marginal literature is a very rare combination.
Finally, one could talk about Ngugi’s cultural and political activism. This precipitated his yearlong detention without trial in 1977. He attributes his detention to his rejection of English and embracing his Gikuyu language as his vehicle of expression.
Which work or works best illustrate his thinking?
It’s hard to pick a favourite from Ngugi’s over two dozen texts. But there is concurrence among critics that A Grain of Wheat, which was voted among Africa’s best 100 novels at the turn of the last century, stands out for its stylistic experimentation and complexity of characters.
Others consider the novel as the last signpost before Ngugi’s work became overly political. For other critics, it’s Wizard of the Crow – which came out in 2004, after nearly two decades of waiting – that encapsulates Ngugi’s creative finesse. It utilises many literary tropes, including magical realism, and addresses the politics of African development and the shenanigans by the political elite to maintain the status quo.
What are Ngugi’s lasting contributions to African literature?
Without a doubt, Africa would be poorer without the efforts of Ngugi and other pioneering writers to tell the African story. He is also an important figure in post-colonial studies. His constant questioning of the privileging of the English language and culture in Kenya’s national discourse saw him lead a movement that led to the scrapping of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and replaced by the Department of Literature that placed African literature and its diasporas at the centre of scholarship.
Ngugi is still active in writing and his latest offering is the third instalment of his memoir, Birth of a Dreamweaver that looks back on his years at Makerere University in Uganda. This is the period when he published his novels, Weep Not, Child and The River Between, while still an undergraduate. Also at this time he wrote the play, The Black Hermit, which was performed as part of Uganda’s independence celebrations in 1962.
His work has been translated into more than 30 world languages.
Ngugi has appeared on the list of favourites to win the Literature Nobel for a number of years. This was yet another year.
Yes indeed, Ngugi has been among the bookies’ favourite for the past couple of years. But since the workings of the Nobel award committee remain secret —- the list of the committee’s deliberations are kept secret for 50 years —- its choice for this year, the American singer Bob Dylan raises interesting questions about the Nobel committee’s interpretation of artistic production as writing.
As one unimpressed pundit commented on Twitter,
“the idea that Dylan is a greater writer (rather than song versifier) than Philip Roth is, frankly, absurd.”
But author Salman Rushdie, who bookies listed among this year’s possible winners, commented:
“From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”
In 1920, Rudyard Kipling (Nobel Prize in Literature 1907), published The Conundrum of the Workshops. This poem about review culture features the Devil as “first, most dread” critic who responds to human creative outputs with: “it’s pretty, but is it art?”, a review that hurls the makers into confusion, rivalry and anguish. What could be worse, for an artist, than to discover that what you were making is not art after all?
Social media has taken over the Devil’s role as “most dread” reviewer, and all night the twitterverse has been alive with commentators expressing their outrage at, or rejoicing over, the decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the Literature prize to musician and songwriter Bob Dylan. As journalist and writer Jason Diamond tweeted: “My timeline is like watching a ‘Dylan deserved the Nobel’ vs ‘Dylan didn’t deserve the Nobel’ ping pong match.”
Much of this ping-pong commentary operates less according to the rules of evidence and argument than according to the rules of quarrel; of personal taste; of anger directed at established privilege; and of teasing Boomer nostalgia.
On the Affirmative team we have not-a-poet Salman Rushdie tweeting that “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.
And there’s actual poet Billy Collins, who affirms the prize because Dylan’s lyrics are “in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page”.
From the team for the Negative, there’s editor Chloe Angyal: “Literally zero women were awarded Nobels this year. Maybe someone can write a poignant, gravelly, somewhat atonal folk song about that”.
Or the writer Shay Stewart Bouley who tweeted about “peak white man music.” Or music journalist Everett True, who pokes fun at the committee: “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature is like your third-rate English teacher at school, trying to look ‘cool’.”
Not all commentators have relied on personal taste or social politics: several observe something that struck me too: there seems to have been a category error in the awarding of this prize.
Novelist Jodi Picoult tweets: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” From novelist Joanne Harris: “Is this the first time that a back catalogue of song lyrics has been judged eligible for a literary prize?” More bluntly, from novelist Jeff VanderMeer:
Is it possible that this award was determined according to the sort of logic set out by The Logician in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros: The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded only to those who have created literature. Bob Dylan was awarded the Prize. Therefore Dylan is a creator of literature?
Perhaps. I am very interested in the relationship between song lyrics and poetry, and it is a close relationship – the first poems were almost certainly sung – but centuries ago, the two creative modes parted company. They operate now according to a different logic, depend on different traditions, and are located within very different ecosystems. This is not a question of relative quality; it is a question of categories.
So, whether I admire Dylan’s body of work or not, whether I am a fan or not, I think the Nobel Prize Committee has made a category mistake. They awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
And I don’t argue with this at all. But does that mean his output is “work in the field of literature”? Not for my money. Dylan is a musician; he has been well recognised for his contributions to music, and more broadly to cultural life.
When Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg gushes that “He is probably the greatest living poet”, I can only say that Mr Wastberg should not be let anywhere near a literature prize.
And – taking my own place on the team for the Negative – if it must go to a songwriter, why Dylan? Did he need the money more than, say, Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin? Has he not had enough public attention? And were there really no writers – no poets, novelists, essayists, no people who have spent their lives in the field of literature – considered Nobel-worthy?
It’s very good to see that literature can still spark passion and outpourings of personal commentary; but I can’t help but read this decision as one that was discourteous to members of the field of literature, dismissive of women’s achievements, and fundamentally kinda nostalgic. Let me leave the last (tongue-in-cheek) word to writer Leah Kaminsky: “No woman wins any Nobel prize this year. Oh the times they ain’t a changin’.”