I’m no fan of literary prizes, unless they mean the winning authors get some money. Writers can always use money. But the prizes themselves edge too close to competition, which I truly believe has no place in art. It’s hard enough to be a writer without having it turned into a contest.
And now I’ll contradict myself (and probably jinx things in the process), and say I hope Haruki Murakami wins the Nobel Prize in literature this year.
I make my wish for a couple of reasons. First, because Murakami does in fact fit the Nobel lit prize profile: He’s a great writer with momentous things on his mind. The Nobel committee likes its winners to tackle big themes. They favor authors who make grand statements about the human condition, or who address momentous events in human history.
There’s certainly enough weightiness in Murakami’s work to satisfy the most serious-minded judge on the planet, from war crimes to terrorism to existential night sweats. But saying that, I admit, is pure hedging. I’m just dutifully pointing out to the committee that here’s a writer who takes serious things seriously.
My real reason for wishing Murakami would win is that he’s fun to read. And fun has never been on the Swedish Academy’s checklist. I’m not even sure they would consider pleasure a criteria. Dylan, you may be sure, did not win his Nobel for his music, he won it for his lyrics. The Nobel judges aren’t big on dancing.
By giving the prize to Murakami, then, the judges would signal that you can be weird and goofy and still be profound. It would also be a way of tacitly apologizing to authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Stoppard, whose playfulness probably even more than their politics stood in the way of a win. Or Thomas Pynchon, whose politics have never been any impediment to his candidacy for a Nobel—here, plainly, the willingness to play the joker is what dooms Pynchon.
Murakami is not only playful; he is always willing to stray into territory not usually visited by the Nobel committee, such as fantasy and science fiction. What must those staid judges make of Murakami plots where elephants vanish and people disappear into TV screens?
Which brings up another impediment to Murakami’s chances: his lack of sheer Japanese-ness. Critics in his own country have assailed Murakami for his Western influences, of which he has never made a secret. Westerners have found his novels strange, but so do his countrymen, for his landscapes and characters owe as much to Raymond Chandler or Vonnegut as they do to any Japanese author.
Here again, however, the judges have a chance to strike a blow for universality, for surely Murakami’s work exemplifies the porousness of international aesthetic borders as well as any writer currently at work. His is the world we live in, like it or not, a world that is both mutable and mysterious. So while the steady erasure of regional identity may be something to mourn, it won’t do to pretend it’s not happening.
I write this in the sincere hope that I am dead wrong, that the Nobel committee is willing to take a hard look at high seriousness and decide that other factors in an author’s resume warrant equal respect—factors such as storytelling, even of the shaggy-dog variety, or a sense of fun. They signalled their willingness to do the unexpected when they gave the literature prize to Dylan last year. If they followed that by bestowing the award on Murakami, they would firmly signal that last year was not an anomaly (and not a subtle slap in the face to American authors who write books, like Pynchon or Roth, whom they deem, for whatever reason, unworthy).
The critic Denis Donoghue once wondered aloud why there is no aesthetics of pleasure, why, in other words, we do not treasure—and rank—certain works of literature simply for the happiness they instill in us as we read. By that criteria, Murakami would be a shoo-in, for no contemporary writer is more fun to read. Not that we can say exactly what the fun is all about. It is rare to read a Murakami novel or story and be able to say, This fiction says X about the human condition. Rather, finishing one of his stories is more like the feeling one has when waking from a powerful dream: You don’t know quite what it means, but you know you are somehow ineradicably changed by the experience. It’s unsettling and electric all at once. It is the rare artist who can inspire such feeling, so rare in fact that there should be a prize awarded for it. I doubt, I’m sad to say, that the prize is named Nobel.