“Can great lasting literature find a reader in America?” I think so, do you?
“Literature is not a boxing match, though sometimes it can appear that way given the polarizing passions it can generate.” So begins yesterday morning’s Times “View from Asia,” a piece by the reporter Didi Kristen Tatlow entitled “In 3 Awards, 3 Ways of Seeing China.” This is the second and more balanced piece she has published in the Times in a week. Indeed, over the last two months, three Chinese writers have won prestigious international awards, including the novelist Mo Yan (Nobel Prize for Literature), the writer/journalist Liao Yiwu (Peace Prize for the German Book Trade), and the Taiwanese poet Yang Mu (Newman Prize for Chinese Literature), but Tatlow’s piece misses some important opportunities that need to be addressed in one of the few forums where readers have access to such discussions. Tatlow’s piece includes fantastic comments from Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-kwan (a/k/a PK) and scholar Michelle Yeh that go a long way toward complicating the “either/or” nature of her first piece which now rather famously ends with the hyperbolic question, “Can great, lasting literature come from there [China]? The Nobel committee thinks so. Do you?” Tatlow’s more recent piece still gives the impression that Mo Yan’s award was given to the PRC ruling party rather than an author. Tatlow simplifies her discussion of Mo Yan with a single quotation from a government official, and she implies that the other two awards were somehow less ideologically implicated—i.e., awarded fairly. I cannot speak to the selection process of the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade, but as the Juror Coordinator for this year’s Newman Prize, I would agree that the Newman Prize represents an important, transparent international award for Chinese Literature. This award is conferred by the University of Oklahoma (named for Ruth and Harold Newman and established by Pete Gries), where a jury of leading international literary scholars weighs literary merit to find the writer who best represents the human condition in written Chinese (from anywhere in the world). Yang Mu won the award because the jury saw his work as a reflection of these high ideals. What Tatlow did not mention is that the Newman Prize honored Mo Yan in 2008, the year a Newman jury selected him for representing the pinnacle of these humanist ideals.
Now, one week later, it seems as though it has been decided that this year’s Nobel committee has forgone the category of literature and simply awarded two peace prizes. Peace prize winners are heroes (to many though perhaps not all) as their lives reveal brave choices under unimaginable conditions. These choices and their ramifications become public record, and that record is the primary text of their cultural production (their writings, then often become paratexts that derive their import from the centrifuge of their lived experiences).
Novelists and poets, on the other hand, simply are not heroes in this sense, and they receive awards according to the cultural prestige they accrue based on their creative contributions to literature and culture. The Nobel Prize for Literature like the Book Prize, Pulitzer Prize as well as the Newman Prize and the Neustadt Prize (for which Mo Yan was a nominee in 1998), are conferred upon literary merit, an artistic basis that does not diminish Peace Prizes but complements them by way of further clarifying the work (and sacrifices) of political figures (who often are writers and/or orators). Such a distinction is essential and should be vigorously protected at such times as these. The value of literature lies in its innovative, creative labors, and running sensationalist pieces that reduce authors to simplistic pawns in geopolitical chess matches discourage people from engaging this labor (especially when it comes in the form of literature in translation) and this is simply not good stewardship of our common culture. This does not mean that geopolitical conversations should not take place, but that literaturists need to be bolder and assert the importance of the work writers do and why it is deserving of (critical) attention, for authors are linguistic technicians building the languages we need to describe the shifting, multiple worlds around us. I think that moments like these should entice literary critics to engage the public culture more directly and defend not Mo Yan alone, but literature more generally from the grip of language unable or simply uninterested in digging into the work literature is/does.
Chinese Literature Today
University of Oklahoma