Nobel Prize for Literature was just awarded to Herta Müller, born in Romania and productive in Germany. This came somewhat to my surprise even though I had not been playing with a crystal ball. Shortly before the announcement, one prominent member of the jury Peter Englund admitted to the Associated Press that the prize has become too Eurocentric with most jury members being European . Americans have not won any Nobel Prize in literature since 1993. Englund’s confession sparkled some hope in America that this time it might be an American author. And the disappointment that followed!
It is worse for China. Chinese poet Beidao was among those nominated for the prize. I guess he will have to wait. On the map of world literature with Europe right at the center, Chinese literature is an island that is hidden somewhere, to be discovered and understood. We depend on the likes of sinologue Wolfgang Kubin to tell the rest of the world what our writing is about. Unfortunately, Kubin was disgusted with the majority of Chinese literature that has surfaced, especially the vulgar young authors who proclaim to be “writing with their bodies” instead of their minds and hearts. Such “body” authors receive better recognition than their more serious peers, thanks to the cultural reporters that care more about controversies than content. Many pop critics do not read much anyway.
What hurdles, then, lie between Chinese writers and Nobel laurels? Literary critic Wang Binbin from Nanjing University says they lack everything, except quantity. They lack “good language, good mood, good thoughts” . With Wang leading the effort, I will add a few items of my own to the list(中国当代作家无人能摘诺奖).
Some believe that Chinese literature, written in Chinese, lack good translators and good translation. If only it were that simple! As I have observed, there is an increasing number of “talent scouts” diligently looking for the next big name in China. There are good translators out there, but of course, being one myself, I have to state that nobody is paying them beyond some symbolic royalties, so understandably some good ones left. There is also no lack of foreign publishers who came in recent years to pursue their Chinese dream. The key of the issue is whether writers can actually sell once their works is translated into other languages. This is something that translators cannot help much with. Some professional translators of Chinese literature confess that their translated works do not sell more than a few thousand copies. What sells is the scar literature by Chinese authors living abroad. Their writings are based upon stereotypical perceptions centered on such themes as the Cultural Revolution and their personal growth story. Not that these themes are innately wrong, but these authors do not take it any further to add new dimensions, new layers, new inquisitions. They just lie comfortably in their little narcissist cocoons without trying to have a broader vision.
Speaking of vision, my feeling is that the Eurocentric jury like works from authors of “two worlds”. Müller, for instance has her “two worlds”: Romania and Germany. She started out as a translator to work in two languages. She is interested in transformations that can happen when words cross borders. In an interview with Radio Romania International, she described how a falling star makes a Romanian think of death, and a German would want to come up with a wish. “We’re not only speaking about different words, but about different worlds. ”
Europe is a place where borders are easily crossed, many languages are spoken, and cultures are constantly clashing, absorbing and assimilating. Once upon a time there were also the opposing worlds of the capitalist vs. the socialist, the Soviet vs. the western. In literature, such clashes and tensions present numerous opportunities. But the “two worlds” I am talking about can be related to geographies, times or systems of ideas. Faulkner has his two worlds of the black and the white, the north and the south, an America before the Civil War and an America after. Naipaul has his worlds of Africa, India and Europe. Pearl Buck grew up familiar with the “East Wind and West Wind”. Sartre found his tensions between his middle class upbringing and his working-class political position. Orhan Pamuk literally lives between Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, where a nostalgic Ottoman past meets a modern Turkey. In an interview with the Paris Review earlier in 2009, Pamuk says: “Turkey should not worry about having two spirits, belonging to two different cultures, having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. You may lose your relation with reality –I’m a fiction writer, so I don’t think that’s such a bad thing- but you shouldn’t worry about your schizophrenia. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness.” (Interview with the Paris Review, 30/01/2009). I am not quoting Pamuk here to promote insanity as a path to literary success. However, it should be emphasized that writers should not be confined only to their little unitary world. People living in two worlds find voices crossing, echoing and clashing, which result in undertones and depths in their work. Living in two worlds is often anything but enjoyable. People may find themselves in dilemmas and clashes and difficult decisions. They may find themselves not accepted or welcomed by each. At the margin or being on the edges, however, lies fertile soil for the growth of artistic creativity. Sadly, China’s literary landscape is monotonous in spite of the sheer number of works being published. It is a landscape isolated from past glories and cut off from international exposure. It is basically an island. There is something really tragic about it.
Chinese writers also lack an encouraging environment for creative writing. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize only after he went to France. In recent years, our cultural environment seemed to have gone back in time. Times are now harder for writers than the 1980s. The Central Propaganda Ministry, the stern father of many smaller watchdogs, is just a huge nervous system housed in a government building. Everything can be made to sound sensitive. They don’t like things they cannot deal with using the old command and control methods. It is so difficult to avoid ideological landmines that writers sometimes retreat to safer corners to write toothless literature that does not bite, or even bark. In this restraining environment, not having anyone win the Nobel Prize may not be such a bad thing for status-quo-maintaining bureaucrats. What may worry them is the possibility that someone may be so careless as to really get a Nobel Prize. The lucky bastard would become an international celebrity. How do we control what he or she says? Would he or she end up embarrassing the state? In cultural affairs, the watchdogs are just pretending they like to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred voices be heard. Deep in their guts they like unerring uniformity, also known as “harmony”.
In addition, the overall social environment in China right now is simply too noisy for quiet writing. You have to enjoy tranquility to enjoy writing. Chinese writers too, stop enjoying tranquility in their writing because everybody else is making money by means fair or foul. They want to be rich, famous and popular. They too want to get a piece of the attention pie. They want to have both the reputation as a serious writer and the popularity of a pop writer, as Dr. Wang Binbin puts it.
Chinese writers also need to have “hearts” to allow them to have larger concerns. Pearl Buck, for instance, took an interest in a group of people that neither Chinese intellectuals nor anyone outside at that time took an interest in: Chinese farmers living on the good old earth. If there are any necessary fools today who’d worry whether the sky will collapse, they should include writers. We are like a bunch of cavemen waiting in our rest for sages to tell us stories and make sense of the world. They are the ones to fret about seemingly unpractical issues, such as the destiny of Africa, what happened to East Germany after the Berlin Wall, or, what is the meaning of life. They are the ones to give voice to the voiceless. They are the ones that hold their chins to think, to look at the starry night, to ponder what is out there and what our life here is all about. They are the ones to formulate difficult questions about the environment and our neighbors. What value is there, if an author cease to do these while focusing on his or her own little life?
I am not offering any formula for the Nobel, of course who’d expect that anyway? One could also ask: why in the world would these writers care about Nobel Prize any way? Isn’t our own Maodun Literary Prize good enough to boost writers’ morale? Not necessarily. In a larger context, there is a glaring inconsistency between our economic success and literary failure. This isn’t very helpful in telling the China story.