Another obscure Nobel Prize literature winner! Sigh

Once again, the Swedish Academy has selected a virtual unknown as its Nobel laureate in literature, Romanian-born German novelist/poet Herta Müller. Herta who?, you ask. You’re not alone. Müller is a writer who ranked far, far down the list at the bookmakers Ladbrokes (at least until the last few days, when she became a virtual co-favorite with Amos Oz, as Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon noted yesterday). Only a handful of her books have been translated into English, and most of those appear to be semi-autobiographical novels about erudite young women of German ancestry who grew up in, and struggled against, the now-fallen Communist regime in late-20th-century Romania.

The books themselves sound, um, daunting. Take The Appointment, a 1997 novel that was published in the U.S. in 2001 (and seems to be the most recent Müller work to appear in English). “The Appointment is more a test of endurance than pleasure,” Peter Filkins wrote in his review in the New York Times, adding that it’s “the kind of novel you might be glad you finished, but sorry that you started, no matter the bleak complexity within it.” Kind of makes you want to click over to Amazon right about now and order a copy for rush delivery, doesn’t it? (Note: Only used copies seem to be available right now.)

I am, admittedly, a myopic American who’s poorly read in non-English-language literature (and only spottily read in English-language classics for that matter). But does the Nobel imprimatur really compel me to pore through the works of Müller — or last year’s comparably unfamiliar laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio? I think not. The Nobel ranks are cluttered with writers who’ve sunk into obscurity and irrelevance, sometimes deservedly so. Do Swedes still read the work of 1916 laureate Verner von Heidenstam? Does anyone think 1938 winner Pearl Buck was one of the top 100 writers of the 20th century?

At its best, the Nobel Prize shines a spotlight on a truly great writer — and sometimes the literature of an entire nation — that’s unfamiliar to readers outside of the writer’s country. It challenges us to think (and read) outside our America-centric comfort zone. Without the Nobel, for instance, I would never have discovered the witty and insightful poetry of Poland’s 1996 laureate Wislawa Szymborska. And the 2006 Nobel for Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk cemented his growing status as a lit phenom (which had been building since the 2004 U.S. publication of his novel Snow).

But what do you think? Do prizes like the Nobel matter when you decide to read a book? Are you tempted to check out Herta Müller? Do works in translation seem too off-putting, like a book-length game of telephone?

Comments (90 total) Add your comment
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  • Anon

    Actually, Pearl Buck is pretty important in the scheme of things. She’s the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (she had previously won a Pulitzer as well). She was also politically active and *at the time* her books were incredibly popular.

    • dave

      Yeah, but where’s the present-day relevance?

      • Gigi

        You mean to tell me that you expect the Swedish Academy of 1938 to have a time machine handy and see which works would be read and renowned for the next, say, 150 years or so? Their collective psychic powers must have been slightly below par that year.

      • Kimberly

        The present-day relevance is that the political and civil rights issues Pearl Buck brought to light with her writing are still in existance today. Through the success of The Good Earth, she was able to establish the first biracial adoption agency in the United States (Welcome House is still in existance today!) as well as an international child sponsorship program that serves biracial children in Southeast Asia. Pearl Buck’s works may not be as popular today as they were in 1931, but I believe her Nobel Prize was a great impetus for good work, just as President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is seen to be.

    • Nick

      “Pearl Buck is pretty important in the scheme of things. She’s the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature…”

      Um, did you justify her worthiness by citing the fact that she won? Hmm, do the letters QED mean anything to you? No? Say, there’s a committee in Oslo that’s hiring…

  • michael

    hey, i loved the good earth

  • Mario

    See, the lack of education people in the US have is not the problem of the Nobel prize commitee. Thank god theres no need for a writer to have published his/her work in English to receive the Literature Nobel prize. Im surprised as well that Mrs Müller was chosen by the committee this year even though I happen to know her brilliant work – good choice!

  • js

    I’m with Mario, and I’m sort of puzzled over the Pearl Buck dis too. I always thought the Nobel laureates were reflective of their times — and sometimes it the times a’change. Why not suggest someone who you thought SHOULD have gotten the award???

    • Thom Geier

      Hey, JS. I’ll happily suggest some writers who should have received the Nobel: Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges, Simone de Beauvoir, Roberto Bolano, Chinua Achebe, Virginia Woolf, Lu Xun.

      The Euro-centric bias of the Swedish Academy is pretty pronounced. In the last 15 years, there has been only one Nobel winner who did not live in Europe: J.M. Coetzee. I’m happy to concede that there is great literature produced outside the U.S. (and outside of English-speaking countries). But the Nobel doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of literature outside of Europe. That seems just as short-sighted and insular.

    • Nick

      Um, for starters, Phillip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Murakami, John Updike (… oh, wait, he died before the committee pulled it’s head out of it’s asininity)

      Oh, you meant a non-American, anti-commercial minority figure of some sort? My mistake.

      Wait, who was that guy who wrote ‘Dreams From My Father” …?

  • keith

    Disappointing. It’s not that I absolutely wanted an American to win, but I would have expected someone with a larger body of work at least. In recent years, and maybe all along, the Nobel in literature has seemed more a political prize than a literature prize. Muller’s bio is compelling. And I’m sure her stories of women triumping over oppressive regimes have great resonance for some, particularly in Europe. But I can’t help but think literature is more than just a good backstory. Will writers seek her out as an influence? I doubt it. I find the choice baffling, no offense to Ms. Muller. She sounds more like a candidate for the Peace prize than one for the literature prize.

    • Val

      Actually, Herta Muller has a pretty large body of work, but very little of it was translated into English. I think a lot of people can can cannect to the situations in her novels. On the other hand, I’m originally from Romania, and partly of German ancestry. So no, I’m not objective (it that possible in literature?), but I certainly can connect to the characters in her books than say… umm, Philip Roth’s (no offence intended for Mr Roth, of course!). But just to point out the world is wider than you think.

      • TMLutas

        One of Herta Muller’s major points seems to be that the communists never went away and they’re still out there, many of them living the good life all over Europe and that this is a horrible fact of life. I think it astounding that somebody won who espouses this political line. Is it the death of anti-anticommunism? I hope so.

  • Gigi

    Actually, although yes Muller is not very well known, every Swede still reads at least excerpts of Heidenstam in high school, Pearl Buck was very important for her time and Le Clézio is very well known in France.

  • Gen of montreal

    Thom, there’s a world outside the US you know.

  • orville

    The Nobel used to be given out as a recognition of a literary great’s entire body of work toward the end of his or her life (Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak, etc.), but it’s become increasingly political. Many are saying that giving the award to Mueller was planned to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

    • brandon

      yeah but they didnt know camus was near the end of his life when they awarded him! car accidents tend to sneak up…

      also: the prize can be given out for any reason stated. read the little blurbs that accompany the award. knut hamsun was awarded his for “the growth of the soil.” not a body of work.

      also: this article makes me sad. i don’t think thom really ‘gets’ literature if he has a difficult time finding resonance and meaning in books that don’t have middle-age white americans as the protagonist. roth 2010! (blech…)

      • brandon

        also: camus was YOUNGER than Muller when receiving the prize.

        the ripe old age of 47, he was.

  • Ehud Knoll

    It is shameful that such brilliant but somewhat obscure authors such as Hüürfnar Vimmers, Abingoh-Kaaali Attamba Zimba-Zim, Sir Buford Cromwell Gately, and R.R.J.S.D. Hammerschmidt were not considered yet again.

  • Ehud Knoll

    Without a doubt, “A Bridge To If” by Sir Buford Cromwell Gately is one of the most important books of the past 100 years. I don’t think anyone would dispute that!

    • Gigi

      Or at least it should go to Katarina Hoxton-Wuqry, who writes the same book every five years and then burns the only copy. Furthermore, I am of the belief that next year the prize should go to an American author who has been widely translated to english.

  • aoife

    Correction: the review in the NYTs was by Peter Filkins, not Dexter.

  • Jerry Klinghoffer

    I admit I haven’t heard of all the authors listed above, but I definitely agree about Abingoh-Kaaali Attamba Zimba-Zim, his poems in particular are very touching and inspirational.

  • James Dean

    Great comment: Hüürfnar Vimmers, Abingoh-Kaaali Attamba Zimba-Zim, Sir Buford Cromwell Gately, and R.R.J.S.D. Hammerschmidt were not considered yet again.
    It’s a pity, isn’t it.

  • RichLeC

    But, seriously, the Nobel is a mixed blessing. When it goes to a popular author, it tends to throw light on her or his faults, as in Buck and Steinbeck. And we can thank Nobel for shining a light on Nagib Mahfouz. I think they got it right with Jose Saramago (although I don’t like his work) and Toni Morrison, because they have international stature. But lately, the academy has been honoring decidedly one-note authors — Pinter with his pauses, Fo with his untranslatable farces (unless they star Jonathan Pryce), and that Austrian feminist nobody can remember. Aside from Fo, it seems as if writers have to be deadly, deadly serious to win it. And frankly, after 1980, the list of great writers who haven’t won Nobels (and now are ineligible because of death) is greater than the list of those who won. Check out Ted Goia’s alternative-universe Nobel prize list from 2007:

    • vincent


      now that sounds odd and quite arrogant.

    • Jonathan

      It’s not only arrogant. It’s once again narrow-minded. Elfriede Jelinek is very, very well known in German literature. There was not the slightest bit of doubt of anybody over here, that she would deserve it.
      With Müller it’s very different. Most people I talked to, don’t know her. What doesn’t make the award wrong.

  • Vasilis

    Imho the article proves once again Engdal’s 2008 aphorism about the “insularity” of modern US literature. It seems insularity is the world for literary criticism in US too.

    I am one of the many who hadn’t heard Herta Müller before, as i had never heard J.-M. Gustave Le Clezio in 2008. But, i am not gonna put the blame for my ignorance to the Nobel comittee.

    Au contraire, i choose to be glad i have the chance to read the work of an author i didn’t know, since her books will be translated in my language now.

    And yes Roth is ok or maybe Atwood is ok too, but have u ever thought people outside US tend to write too???

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