As is widely known, the Nobel Prizes owe their existence to an attack of guilty conscience on the part of their testator; it is therefore somewhat fitting that, at least with regards to literature, they have devolved less into an award of legitimate merit than a pitiful scramble to keep up appearances—particularly as regards, however ill-fittingly, universalism and inclusiveness. This is not to say that it was formerly better or that its recipients are undeserving; only that the haziness of the principles it alleges to reflect works to the detriment of its nonetheless persistent prestige. Out of 109 writers who have won it, I have read complete books by only 63 of them; there is none whom I consider a writer of genius; of those I have read, there are 15 that I read with pleasure, ranging from those I find deeply moving, like Claude Simon and Saint-John Perse, to those, like Jelinek, the experience of whose writing transcends torpidity without quite rising to engagement. Around twenty I can say with certainty I will never read, and there are perhaps ten whose work I know well and detest. Proust is not there, nor Bernhard nor countless writers in smaller languages whose election would have proven a more vigorous vindication of Europe’s minority languages or vestigial nations than the slightly mushy Frédéric Mistral.
It is difficult to say which is more disconcerting: the bare chauvinism of the prize in its earlier days, its marked inclination toward a style of sun-kissed, winsome pastoralism and its fairly naked affection for Nordic writers whom at least, one assumes, the judges could read in the original, or the haughty ungraspability of its present incarnation, which one year awards the political stridency—let us not say opportunism—of a writer who hasn’t produced decent work in decades, and the next, when its choice of an author whose relationship with his authoritarian homeland displays a discomfiting lack of discord, weaves a prosthetic dissidence from the fabric of the academy’s own cultural ignorance? This without mentioning the swarm of superannuated mediocrities that bob up every fall when betting season starts up at Ladbroke’s and the like: Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, and other cadavers thrown up on the shore by the shipwreck of high culture in the age of bourgeois democracies…
Why do I care? Because, like everyone, I enjoy a certain amount of kvetching; because, for those on the fringes of literature, the Nobel odds have a kind of office gossip quality about them; most fruitlessly, because I continue to hope people will come to their senses and stop using words like “genius” and “Cormac McCarthy” in the same sentence.
The dismal thing about the Nobel is that, trying to do too much, it manages to do nothing well. An award that passed over Virginia Woolf and Proust in favor of Pearl Buck and Romain Rolland, just to stick to their contemporaries, cannot be taken in earnest as a yardstick for literary excellence; yet it is impossible to defend the magnanimity of a prize-giving body that has only 12 times out of 109 been able to come up with a woman of sufficient merit and seems not to have become fully aware of the existence of off-white peoples until into the 1980s (though characteristically, the committee’s very late and meretricious sallies at atonement have already come under fire by those whose animadversion to political correctness serves as the outward expression of an intimation that maybe the cultural artifacts produced by European and American males really are the only legitimate ones).
The irritations expressed in the foregoing paragraphs had already begun their seasonal flare-up when I saw, one day on Twitter, a link from the cultural supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País written by the to-me unknown Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo, whose name recalls the Catalan term for a ball-breaker (rompecollons) and whose works include a number of soap opera scripts I cannot claim to have read, the John Grisham-esque Red April and a series of imagined telephone conversations that has been described as humorous, surreal, tragic, tragicomic, deft, wry, etc., in that etiolated lexicon by which mediocre reviewers try to arrogate intellectual virtues to entertainment literature or mimic enthusiasm for books they have been led to believe they’re supposed to like.
The editorial was entitled I know who won’t win the Nobel, and its subject was the ostensible merit of… Stephen King.
The article begins by averring: “The majority of the snobs who disdain Stephen King don’t know him. They hate him because they haven’t read him, and they haven’t read him because they hate him.” It is not clear whether the author believes in a non-snob who disdains Stephen King or whether such disdain is inherently snobbish, and I therefore do not know whether I should describe myself as a snob in the minority or something different. Whatever the case, as a pre-adolescent, I read everything Stephen King wrote between 1974 and 1991, when my English teacher gave me a copy of The Stranger and I entered into that maudlin stage of literary development that must be many young people’s point of entry into reading proper philosophy and literature.
It is not even correct to say that I disdain Stephen King. Writing of the kind he does is a craft that requires intuitive acumen and great discipline. I am not so foolish as to think that, were Stephen King and his ilk to vanish, his immense readership would be forced to turn to Walter Benjamin; I have also heard painfully stupid remarks uttered, and seen unspeakable crudities committed, by connoisseurs of highbrow literature, so I am disinclined to moralize on these matters. I am not one of those bitter failed artists who thinks I could write bestsellers if only I weren’t too true to my principles to sell out. What unsettles me has nothing to do with Stephen King per se; it is rather the smug insinuations of Roncagliolo himself.
Among the virtues of the American author praised by Roncagliolo is his “capacity to give expression to the fears we all carry around inside us.” He cites first Carrie, whose theme is rather the revenge exacted by a victim of abuse than the terror that her abuse inspires; then Insomnia, which I have not read, but a summary of the outlandish plot of which seems to belie Roncagliolo’s suggestion that it treats of the fear of old age and the loss of faculties; and finally The Shining. The last of these he claims will resonate with anyone who has ever felt alone; I seem to recall it being about a man who goes insane in a hotel.
King is not a formulaic writer, Roncagliolo asserts. To buttress this position, he refers to the “realism” of Misery, which treats of a writer’s fan locking him up in a room, cutting off his foot with an axe and cauterizing the wound with a blowtorch, and making him write a series of novels that feature her favorite character; he uses the term “a novel without genre” to describe the run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story The Body, which he mistakenly calls Stand by Me; this being the title of its filmed version, I wonder whether he knows Stephen King’s work as well as he alleges or whether he is instead just being a douchy provocateur.
The rest of the article is an enumeration of half-truths, one-quarter-truths, commonplaces, and gibberish such as:
1) a lamentable comparison of the publication of the second part of the Quijote to the release, to please rabid crowds, of a sequel to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
2) the perplexing characterization of José Saramago as an author whose ambition was to recount the entire society of Portugal.
3) the hackneyed proclamation that “the fundamental concept of American culture is fear.”
4) the suggestion that Jonathan Franzen is an intellectual.
If you know Spanish, you can read the whole thing here: http://elpais.com/elpais/2013/09/20/eps/1379678016_449757.html.
If you don’t, be happy that you’ll have to waste four minutes reading something else.