Friday, April 8, 2011

If an Australian Does Not Win....

So we have four strong candidates, Carey, Malouf, Murnane, and Murray. All are Anglo-Celtic males (yes, I know about Malouf's Lebanese paternal ancestry). All are writers who first came to world notice (some more than others) in the 1980s. There is a reasonably good chance one of these will win the Prize. But if none of these win, what will this outcome be saying?
    It could merely be a matter of happenstance. The Nobel Prize is not a lifetime achievement award; those who thought that Dorothy Hewett (whom I personally regard as a very distinguished writer)  would receive it, simply for writing interesting novels, plays, memoirs, having lived a long time, and being a woman with radical politics--were misjudging the nature of the honor. As said before, the Nobel Prize is not efficient; many who might well on standards of pure merit win given world enough and time are closed out by the clock. Indeed, there are writers who have 'unofficially' become laureates as people assume they would have won the Prize had they lived. (Sebald, Bolaño, etc.) If one of the above Australians wins, it is likely some of the below will not: Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Witi Ihimaera, Yves Bonnefoy, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Carlos Fuentes, Adonis, Ko Un.
    But if none of the four 'major' Australians win, it could be that the Academy is looking for a different sort of Australian writer. In a way it all comes down to Patrick White. Is the current generation different enough from Patrick White to warrant a Prize? Has it gone in new directions as far as world literature has concerned? We have had a modern Australian laureate; the four above all represent different aspects of postmodernity.
   Ten, twenty years from now, the list of possible Australian winners will look more 'diverse'. Right now, if any others were suggested, they would also probably be white males: Murray Bail, sometimes praised as an Australian Borges, is somebody who could be mentioned for the Prize, although likely he will come no closer to the prize than the real Borges did, despite the genuine acheivement of The Pages. Shirley Hazzard, with a 23-year gap between award-winning novels,  probably just has not published enough fiction to win, although her work is certainly eligible in terms of merit. Janette Turner Hospital has had a long and distinguished career and has also been involved in discussuons of international literature.   Tim Winton is a good enough writer to win, but probably, like Jorge Amado or Yashar Kemal, he is a deserving author who will not be seen as "highbrow" enough.  Winton is young enough though, and Breath good enough, to think he might enhance his candidacy in the years ahead. Kate Grenville conceivably could be a candidate now, with her international success, although as far as I know she has not been mentioned. But certainly she would be deserving, although, like Malouf, the question of a writer whose principal theme has been a white response to the Indigenous issue would arise. I would put this problem this way: "Can we have Le Clézio after Obama?" Jean Marie Le Clézio won the prize in 2008 largely for writing sympathetically about non-whites. But when non-whites in the metropolitan world begin winning Peace Prizes,  as President Obama did in 2009, is finding merit in that posture primarily possible? I am not saying Malouf and/or Grenville are limited to this stance, merely that they are best known worldwide for it.
     In ten or twenty years, Kim Scott or Alexis Wright or some other Indigenous writer nobody has heard of yet might be contenders. Had his ancestry not been questioned, Mudrooroo would be a contender right now. Christos Tsiolkas might seem too irreverent to be a Nobel candidate, but the world changes, and Tsiolkas is a writer of distinction. Nam Le has barely begun his career, who knows? This is not to say that there will be a permanent multicultural turn, that no Anglo-Celtic Australian writer will ever again be the face of their country's literature; the still-'young' John Kinsella has made a career of eminently Nobel-worthy contour, and Australian literary talent under 50 is considerable and deep. Though a writer's career can be complicated--both Thomas Keneally and Randolph Stow would have been thought, in time,  to be plausible candidates for this list when they were young, but they fell out of the discussion for very different reasons. Australia will very likely have plausible Nobel candidates in 2031.  But they will come from a different sort of Australia.
    I don't think this is the major obstacle to the four candidates. The major obstacle is a numbers problem, just as if one of them wins the major obstacle to a Roth or a Rushdie is a numbers problem. But it does raise an important issue. What is Australian literature? What does it look like to the global public? Who writes it? Brian Castro, for instance, is a writer of great quality but has not been mentioned in the Nobel speculation. Why is this? Whoever does or does not get the Nobel Prize, the Australian writers discussed in this series certainly have made a valorous and indispensable contribution to the literature of their country and of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Some have mentioned Christopher Koch and David Ireland to me. I think they are good, deserving writers who for whatever reason have not been in the conversation. The writers I was analyzing were those who have been mentioned for the prize not necessarily my own list of my favorite writers; if so, it would be much longer, as there is a lot of superb writing from Australia today.