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Tuesday October 15, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday October 15, 2013 MYT 7:32:49 AM
by akshita nanda
At the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany last week, the German publisher of Alice Munro’s books, Fischer Publishing, was inundated by the press when Munro’s Nobel Prize win was announced. — EPA
SOME say Canadian author Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize for Literature is a win for female writers and the short story form. I say the true winner this year is the Swedish Academy.
The choice of Munro validates an award that lately seems increasingly irrelevant to the reading world.
Past choices such as Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer (2011) have made it seem that the Nobel committee roots for the obscure and painfully worthy rather than the readable.
Part of the problem is of course the Swedish Academy’s tight-lipped nature, which often unfairly tars the chosen writer with the brush of obscurity.
Other high-profile literary awards such as Britain’s two big ones, the Man Booker Award and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), announce a longlist and shortlist in the run-up to the official announcement, which shapes media buzz and sparks public interest in the authors.
“With the Nobel Lit Prize, it’s really anyone’s guess,” says Felicia Low-Jimenez, 34, merchandising division manager of Books at Kinokuniya Singapore.
As a result, publishers and retailers lose opportunities to market authors and win readers’ favour.
In contrast, Munro, the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International prize, sells herself.
The 82-year-old has 17 volumes of stories popular enough to be already well-represented in bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore.
Last year’s collection, Dear Life, just won Ontario’s Trillium Book Award and two of her short stories have been made into movies – Hateship, Loveship, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Away From Her (2006), starring Julie Christie.
Her life story is equally appealing. She picked tobacco to support herself in university, wrote in between raising her children and also ran an independent bookstore for years.
Munro ticks so many boxes that her win almost outshines the rather disconcerting statistics surrounding the prize she won on Thursday.
Of the 106 times the Nobel Literature Prize has been awarded, sometimes to more than one author at the same time, it has gone to a female writer only 13 times, 10 times to writers from Asia and Africa and only once to a writer from both those niches – South African Nadine Gordimer in 1991.
Counting ethnically Asian writers such as V.S. Naipaul, a British citizen born and raised in Trinidad, and China-born Gao Xingjian, now a French citizen, only 10 authors have been chosen from the most populous continents in the world, with readerships that outstrip that of the West. And there is no shortage of genius on either continent, acknowledged by thousands of readers, if not by the Swedish Academy, for a lifetime’s achievement.
For readers like me, significant omissions from the list of laureates include Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died this March, and Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006.
Since Nobels for literature cannot be awarded posthumously, waiting in the wings are the widely read F. Sionil Jose from the Philippines and Japan’s Haruki Murakami, a hot favourite for years.
Singapore writer Felix Cheong, 48, thinks “the Swedish Academy have something against writers being ‘popular’.”
Whether or not this is the case, the academy itself is not as popular as it could be, if it widened its reading and made the selection process more obvious and open.
Last year’s winner Mo Yan was slammed by past laureates such as Herta Muller for his reported willingness to toe the party line in China.
This year’s Nobel Literature laureate is instead being hailed by readers and writers from Salman Rushdie to Joyce Carol Oates as a voice for short story writers worldwide. By proxy, the committee that chose Munro is also being covered with glory.
It is a clever move and hopefully one that signals that the Swedish Academy is about to broaden its horizons and re-think how best to follow Alfred Nobel’s mandate to honour “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
It all depends on next year’s winner and whether the Nobel committee’s choice keeps the re-awakened interest of readers. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
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