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Do Speak: Nobels and Other Literary Prizes

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This week, Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature. The reaction of much of the world was: "Who?"

A well-known and prize-winning author in China, Mo Yan (whose pen name means "Don't Speak") is not a particularly familiar author outside his own country, even to passionate readers who are interested in international literature. Only a few of his books have been translated to English and those are not necessarily widely available.

Mo Yan is the first Chinese author who lives in China to receive the award (French citizen Gao Xingjian won it a dozen years ago).

All this has led people to wonder how exactly the Nobel Prize committee chooses winners. Do they genuinely choose the best writers? What defines "talent" anyway and is the committee the best judge? Do they choose authors who they think more people should be aware of? Do they go for little-known but talented writers? Do they let themselves be influenced by politics? Are they trying to comment on or even influence countries/cultures/political situations through their choices? Are they trying to spread the fame and money that the Nobel brings to specific nations for particular reasons?

And, of course, the follow-up question is: should they be doing that?

After the announcement about Mo Yan was made, someone said to me, "If you're a writer from the US or most European countries, you will not get the prize, so forget it." Others have said that the Nobel is increasingly about politics rather than - or in addition to - literature. There are many who feel that more and more over the years, the Nobel committee - and other literary prize committees - are looking to make a statement rather than to actually reward true talent.

A Chinese-to-English translator I know pointed out that Mo Yan is a popular writer from the world's most populous country, and suggested that this should mean something, and that readers outside China should want to get to know his writing. Interestingly, though, the author is also considered to be a social critic in his works, sometimes clashing with the Communist Party. Some have wondered if it is this that the Nobel committee went for, hoping that his win might somehow help inspire regime change or a push for more democracy.

Personally, I think that if literary prizes are used to give a message about something other than literary talent, then the meaning has changed completely. There perhaps should be prizes for the best novels with political talent, or the most inspiring novels, or whatever else, but they aren't necessarily the same as the best literary works.

On the other hand, we also have to consider the fact that the best novels do touch and inspire readers in a multitude of ways, and that this may include making people reflect on their lives and try to change their political, cultural, educational, social, religious, or other situations. The issue is whether any literary prize committee can accurately judge that, and whether they do really choose literature that is both well written and meaningful.

I haven't read Mo Yan, but I've just ordered one of his books in English translation, and I look forward to learning more about why the Nobel Prize committee chose him. And no matter what I might think of his writing or about the reasons behind the prize, I'm glad he has the freedom to write. There are still people around the world who don't, and perhaps great literature will help enact some change. Do speak, we should tell people, and do write.

Maybe you, too, will win a literary award one day. A cynic might add, especially if you're from a certain country or live in a certain political situation.