October 8, 2009


So, we have a new winner for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and while folks in them literature departments in the United States will lament and criticise for Romanian-German Herta Müller being the third European writer in the row to be awarded the Nobel (it certainly didn't help that Horace Engdahl of the Nobel committee in 2008 was such a culturally arrogant prick in announcing that "Europe is still the centre of literature"), what is missing in the debate is that Müller, like most of her predecessors, wasn't awarded for her style or for the stories she told. She gets the "this is your life, awesome, isn't it?" award.

It's something that has been running rampant in the "literature industry" for a long time now. In the United States is culminated in the excesses of James Frey and his faux memoir A Million Little Pieces and Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.

Both of those authors were never made famous by the media machine based on the merits of their writings. Frey's book came with the And I was so down, and I went through so much shit, and look at me now bullshit that Oprah Winfrey eats up like it's chocolate cake with whip cream. He was one of those "media figures" that just happened to have a book to sell with a life story that was "so inspiring, aw" and so"true, I could almost feel your pain while reading it", eh, Oprah?

And Viswanathan, who by their own admission "didn't even like to write", well, she was the cute teenage ingenue of the week. Look! She's adorable! She gives interviews like a pro! She's from Harvard! She must know what it is like to grow up in the environment, and thus her book must have been at least partially about her own experiences! She can relate with our consumer base! Give her to me! Fucking get her agent on the phone!

And – while Müller isn't quite in that club, it becomes clear from how she is portrayed in the media, that the exact same mechanism are at work with her winning the Nobel, as evidenced by the AP article about her win.

STOCKHOLM – Herta Mueller, a little-known Romanian-born author who was persecuted for her critical depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday in an award seen as a nod to the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse <...> Mueller, a member of Romania's ethnic German minority, was honored for work that "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," the Swedish Academy said <...> Mueller, 56, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled "Niederungen," or "Nadirs," depicting the harshness of life in a small, German-speaking village in Romania. It was promptly censored by the communist government. In 1984 an uncensored version was smuggled to Germany, where it was published and devoured by readers. That work was followed by "Oppressive Tango" in Romania but she was eventually prohibited from publishing inside her country for her criticism of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's rule and its feared secret police, the Securitate. "The Romanian national press was very critical of these works while, outside of Romania, the German press received them very positively," the Academy said.
Mueller, whose father served in the Waffen SS during World War II, is the third European to win the prize in a row and the 10th German, joining Guenter Grass in 1999 and Heinrich Boell in 1972. Though Englund said the award was not timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism, that's how it was perceived by many observers.
"By giving the award to Herta Mueller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, (the committee) has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten," said Michael Krueger, head of Mueller's publisher Hanser Verlag. Mueller emigrated to Germany with her husband in 1987, two years before Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe. "This prize is the international recognition of the oppression of what happened in Romania and Eastern Europe," said Romanian actor Ion Caramitru, an anti-communist who rode atop a tank to the television station in Bucharest during the 1989 revolt and now heads the country's national theater.
Notice something? There isn't a damn thing about how good her books are in the entire thing. It's all about Müller's life, about the hardships (and I am not making light of that, but you know something? Hardship ain't what is making you a good storyteller) she experienced growing up behind the Iron Curtain, and how this win is a political fanfare recgonising the oppression that was the day-to-day life in Eastern Europe. Sorry. Let me yawn here for a second. If that's your point, give her the fucking Nobel Peace Prize, not the one for literature.

Neil Gaiman finished his Sandman with an issue named The Tempest, and while Gaiman will very likely never be even remotely close to that Nobel celebratory meeting, he understood something about writing and, more importantly, story-telling that none of the men and women in the Nobel Committee will ever get, even if one were to try and hammer it into their heads with a two by four.

It's the story that counts, boys and girls, not the life of the author behind it. It matters...not little, it matters not at all, or Gaimain's Shakespeare says "I would have thought that all one needs to understand people is to be a person."