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Why Haruki Murakami should not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature

29 Comments

Two elements of Murakami Haruki’s work make him an attractive Nobel candidate: the translational nature of his prose and the liberalism of his non-fiction projects. Both rely on credulity toward his veneer of multiculturalism and political relevance, and a willingness to refrain from comparing him to the handful of less famous Japanese authors who exceed him in both respects. His success, in fact, does not mark the triumph of transnational aesthetics, but rather the continued hegemony of American publishing interests who understand that English readers have little tolerance for the foreign.

Many of Murakami’s detractors, however, offer only the stodgy nationalism that Murakami isn’t a demonstrably “Japanese” writer. This critique, once directed at Kenzaburo Oe, is wrongheaded. But Oe’s and Murakami’s fiction are not commensurate in ethical density, nor do their novels produce the same effect in readers. Oe’s moralism is empowering and emancipatory. Murakami, rightly dubbed “a pornographer of depression,” produces stylized stultifications of the spirit, as rich in lassitude as they are in quaffable prose. Many of Japan’s foremost literary critics (Kojin Karatani and Yoichi Komori included) have faulted Murakami’s writing for its shallow, self-indulgent gloss on history and trauma.

Murakami’s sanctimony toward the favored writers of American publishing’s pyramid scheme (wherein aspiring authors outnumber casual readers) has endeared him to English professors and other mid-level tastemakers. But he has avoided the difficult, unrewarding work that surmounting cultural barriers demands: writing multilingual texts that defy commercial literary paradigms. This has been left to Yoko Tawada, Hideo Levy, Minae Mizumura and Lee Yangji, among others, all of whom have labored under the sign of Japan’s last Nobel caliber author, the late Kenji Nakagami.

Comparison with Levy offers the starkest illustration. Much of Levy’s work is set in China’s Henan province, where he has pursued what little humanity remains in a nation beaten senseless by a cruel march toward prosperity. Levy’s China writing includes its share of trilingual moments and several critics have suggested that the multilingual wrinkles in his short story, "Ten-an-mon" (Tiananmen) may have cost him the Akutagawa Prize.

When Senkaku tensions overflowed, a much-anticipated public dialogue between Levy and Yan Lianke was cancelled. Levy thereafter gave an expansive, vulnerable interview to the Tokyo Shimbun about the future of Japan-China relations. The interview matters because Levy has dedicated a decade of literary yeoman’s work to examining the fragile pith of Chinese culture.

When Murakami weighed in on the Senkaku dispute via the Asahi Shimbun, it was to warn against imbibing the “cheap liquor of nationalism.” However compelling the sentiment, it amounted to a truism from an author who has sacrificed little for the sake of Japan-China understanding. He has made a habit of such gestures, having ridden to the rescue after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Aum attacks, thereby claiming – almost exclusively – whatever goodwill such catastrophes generate for savvily-marketed writers.

Murakami’s pronouncements matter because he’s Murakami, “one of the world’s foremost novelists,” as AFP put it. But if this is why the English language press latched onto Murakami’s comments while overlooking Levy’s interview, then we’ve arrived at the sad intersection of literary authorship and Oprah-ism, wherein the media’s limited attention span necessitates the selection of a single, self-perpetuating fame figure for whom publicly-disseminated thoughtfulness is reserved.

Credit The New Yorker and other well-moneyed American publishing interests. Murakami – as English readers (including the Swedish Academy) know him – is their fabrication. Translator Stephen Snyder’s work traces the shaping of Murakami’s brand by Robert Gottlieb and examines how Gottlieb’s successor, Deborah Treisman, has fixated on conjuring ‘the next Murakami.’ To the credulous, this is an effort to keep Japanese literature in The New Yorker’s tent; to the observant, it’s an attempt to construct an exotic, saleable façade for American fiction’s tired idioms (the lack of a viable American Nobel candidate is an exhausted topic). As Snyder has noted, Murakami’s American investors set out to turn him into a “literary version of the Sony Walkman and the Honda Civic.”

This would be fine if it resulted in the publication of more Japanese literature. But Gottlieb and Treisman haven’t given us Japanese literature. They have given us Treisman and Gottlieb. Their fingerprints are omnipresent in the New Yorker versions. Alterations are not necessarily wrongful; both previous Nobel laureates from Japan were rendered by activist translators (Edward Seidensticker and John Nathan). But Nathan translated Oe with autonomy and was published by the insurgent Barney Rosset. Now comes the age of pander, where authors provide the raw cultural and biographical materials necessary to make the publishing industry’s pet aesthetics marketable. Treisman – who "made" Yoko Ogawa – withdrew The New Yorker’s interest in one of Ogawa’s stories after the author declined to rewrite the ending.

Awarding Murakami the Nobel Prize therefore wouldn’t amount to a recognition of Japanese literature’s continued vitality, but to a vindication of American publishing’s marketing apparatus, not only as chief arbiter of which Japanese authors are read outside Japan, but as the world’s dominant literary and cultural tastemaker, capable of dressing its imperialism in increasingly ridiculous costumes – a New Yorker writer translated by a Harvard professor as paragon of contemporary Japanese literature.

See more stories by Dreux Richard.

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29 Comments
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Awarding Murakami the Nobel Prize therefore wouldn’t amount to a recognition of Japanese literature

Nobel prizes are attributed to persons. That would be Murakami's prize and not "Japan's prize" or the prize of Japanese editor's market.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

These are really strong words for having so little actual information to back them up. I realize it's commentary, but I have to say I still expected more substance in this.

As Snyder has noted, Murakami’s American investors set out to turn him into a “literary version of the Sony Walkman and the Honda Civic.” Write more about this, and less about how Murakami writes sad stories. If there's a problem with his literature, it's not because it's depressing, but because there's no real substance. It doesn't have to be intrinsically Japanese, but it does need to at least be literature.

Disclaimer: This is not how I view Murakami, just what I think would be a much stronger argument against him getting the Nobel Prize.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Most of the big published writers have staff writers assigned to them by their respective publishing houses and the staff writers do a lot of the work.

The image of the writer sitting by the fireplace with his typewriter penning his novel by himself is a farce.

These big writers are a team staffed by the publishing house, all complete with project managers, fact checkers, staff writers to do each chapter, editors, marketers and even psychologists to assist in character development.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Despite all the academic gobbledygook the good professor spews forth, the plain and simple truth is that Murakami should NOT be given the Nobel because he clearly does not deserve it.

Putting him in the same class as giants like Lessing, Grass, Marquez, Singer, Paz, Bellow, Morrison and others would be a total sham and disgrace.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I have only red him in English, but in the translations, his novels woefully pretentious with cardboard characters and a complete lack of any depth of insight or exploration of emotion.

Just my opinion obviously, but the guy shouldn't be within a mile of a Nobel prize for literature.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

These big writers are a team staffed by the publishing house, all complete with project managers, fact checkers, staff writers to do each chapter, editors, marketers and even psychologists to assist in character development.

Not Murakami... Or it's really a lazy team that he gets. He writes like he talks (uni teacher), and I bet the editor cuts 1/2 of repetitions and edit typos. His non-fictions, that may even be direct transcription of interviews and he can wrap a book in 2 afternoons, one to record, one to discuss with assistants which parts to use.

Just my opinion obviously, but the guy shouldn't be within a mile of a Nobel prize for literature.

I agree, but tastes and colors.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

but really...is it necessary to be dead to be finally acclaimed as a great creator? It's just my opinion (as everyone else stated here) but i consider Murakami is an exceptional writer. I've read a lot of books in different languages and as an experienced reader I long for words that will last for awhile and his books give me this. (the same as with another Nobel laureate G.G. Marquez) It doesn't matter if his books are sold in billions of copies and it seems like he's a mass-production. I believe the worlds he creates in his books are temptatious for a lot of people. And receiving a prize be it Nobel or not represents the apreciation of grateful readers. As it was stated, in my humble opinion I consider you should judge the book, not the social image of the person because the book is the person himself.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Wow, Dreux Richard has been writing a few too many academic papers.....

But he has avoided the difficult, unrewarding work that surmounting cultural barriers demands: writing multilingual texts that defy commercial literary paradigms.

Gobbeldygook. Murakami is a very good writer. I have liked and disliked his novels over the years - I have found him to be most uncommercial and a man who has a destinct voice informed by his formative years and experiences who explores the quirky, strange and sad aspect of the human condition in a inimitable fashion. IQ84 was a sensational read - I couldn't put it down. I found it to be written by a guy who was very comfortably Japanese but distictly global in perspective as well. It was a playful, quirky, strange and ultimately uplifting.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

@Tamarama Quite the contrary. That is not gobbeldygook. It is a valuable insight into the problem that Richard pinpoints with Murakami's oeuvre. People who cannot understand that straightforward sentence have no business weighing in on the literary merit of books. They can say what they like and dislike about the writer and the stories--as you do--but that is not literary criticism. There are all kinds of "sensational reads" that are just that, nothing more. And that's the point (agree with him or disagree with him as you wish) Richard is making and the pleasure of discourse.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Opinions aside...We'll find out in a few hours

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wonder if the antagonism of this article has anything to do with Murakami's views about the Senkaku Islands and World War 2 in general. It is still taboo to speak of such things, let alone the cruelties perpetrated in the name of Hirohito the "god-emperor". I get the feeling Murakami isn't much liked in Japan because he offends their nationalist sentiment.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

It is a valuable insight into the problem that Richard pinpoints with Murakami's oeuvre.

You think so? Because to me it is rather light on for that. Apart from a perfunctory paragraph or two he seems to be far more interested in the fact that Murakami doesn't write multilingually and the American Publishing houses he uses than his actual work itself. To call him a fabrication of the American publishing's marketing aparatus is fine, but I'd prefer to be reading a more direct analysis of his work, preferably by someone multilingual. I suppose I should be looking elsewhere for that.

And for the record, I'm not advocating Murakami's work for a Nobel Prize, because he shouldn't be.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Thank god sanity has prevailed in Oslo.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I can't help but feel that much of what passes for appreciation of fine literature and art is little more than intellectual voyeurism. For some reason, people tend to forget that it is not opinions that make fine literature.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Dreux was a lot fairer than I thought he was going to be when I read the title, but I don't agree with his idea that the 'Murakami we know' is an American editing trick or apparatus. He's known and loved world-wide, for starters, and although some nations will just translate his work themselves, in particular with English Murakami reads and approves of the translations himself. It WOULD be a win for Japan and Japanese literature, although Murakami rightly shuns the media here for being in the spotlight elsewhere -- very faux pas in Japan where you need to sell out immediately if you see any domestic or international success.

I don't know who the other potentials are for winning this time around, but he'll get it at some point, and it will be much deserved.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@ cabadaje

For some reason, people tend to forget that it is not opinions that make fine literature.

I'm genuinely interested in this statement. Are you saying that defining what makes great literature is not a matter of opinion (in which case, what is it?) or are you saying something else?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Mo Yan has been announced as the winner of the Nobel Lierature Prize. He looks good too. Looking forward to reading a few of his books. I actually like Murakami myself and enjoy his books, but as Ive never read any of the Nobel prize winning novels, Ive never thought about how his novels would compare to one, and whether he would deserve this prize.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm genuinely interested in this statement. Are you saying that defining what makes great literature is not a matter of opinion (in which case, what is it?) or are you saying something else?

Most people pretend to understand fine literature by making intricate, and occasionally absurdly complicated, connections between the author and their story, and then, strangely, passing judgement on their opinion of what was influencing the author. It's as if fine literature was really nothing more than whatever one believes the author to have said, with more emphasis on who said it than on the message itself.

On more than one occasion, I have seen people take it to the extreme of absurdity: I once heard a speaker present a detailed study of Emily Dickinson's poems, noting how the dashes connecting certain lines tilted slightly upward, downward, or straight across, and concluding that these tilts indicated a favorable, less desirable, or neutral emphasis on the subject. He then proceeded to analyze selected poems in this manner. I was mildly bemused at this, and hoped it wasn't being taken seriously, until another soul raised his hand and pointed out that generally, when people speak, a high inflection indicates less weight and a lower tone indicates greater seriousness, in which case the speaker's theory would actually be reversed. This began another discussions to whether Dickinson read her poems out loud to herself. I, myself, couldn't help but think that whenever one is drawing a dash, it really has no option other than to be slightly inclined upwards, downwards, or straight across, and perhaps the direction didn't actually mean anything whatsoever. The point is that this group of self-described intellectuals spent upwards of an hour and a half presumably discussing Dickinson's poems, but really doing little more than discussing Dickinson. Voyeurism of a slightly more academic, intellectual, sort, but voyeurism just the same. Analyzing the author is more entertaining than analyzing the writings.

In and of itself, there isn't anything inherently wrong with this. The only real problem is when people make the mistaking of defining great literature by what they believe the author meant. At that point, you are defining great literature by, essentially, whatever your opinion of the work is, and just sort of relying on some sort of general consensus that whatever the subject is really is great literature. This is an intellectual, or perhaps an egocentric, blind spot that has been taken advantage of countless times by scam artists literally creating out of sheer imagination fake stories, artworks, diaries, whatever, and passing them off as works of the greats.

So, if fine literature isn't fine because it came from a famous author, what is it that makes fine literature? Have you ever heard the saying: "Actions speak louder than words"? That's pretty much it.

The reason fine literature is fine literature is because it causes a change in behavior.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Agreed with smithinjapan - Murakami will get his gong next year. Loved all his works and can't put 'em down. Now I have to give this Chinese writer's books a good read - they reckon his books are sensational. Hope they hit the bookstores here in English soon.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Burakumin

Hope they hit the bookstores here in English soon.

Been here for years, mate. One or two exceptions.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@ lucabrasi - cheers - will defo hit up the bookshops when I next head to the big smoke down Tokyo way.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I've actually been telling my friends for a couple of years that Mo Yan should have won years ago, but never would because of his politically problematic background (essentially: he learned to write at the Peoples Army School of Creative Writing). My first draft of this piece included a sentence advocating for Mo Yan to win.

Since he won I've been getting a lot of emails from friends: "You're a genius! You called it!" etc. I have to remind them that, in fact, I did the opposite of call it: I predicted he would never win. So apparently I'm unperceptive, and unfairly cynical about how the winner gets selected. I'm glad to have been proven wrong, and I do agree (though I also lament) that Murakami will win it eventually.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

To add to Lucabrasis comment, Mo Yan has been around quite a while. His most well known book might be Red Sorghum, though Im only saying that as I recognise it as a film title (it was made into a film in 1987), but he`s got quite a few others. I plan to start with The Garlic Ballads.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Wind up bird chronicle was brilliant. His others, less so. I would rather have Ryu Muralami's sequel to Coin locker babies translated into English than read another Haruki novel.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@cabadaje, you said it perfectly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I assume the op is unfamiliar with Murakami in his own language!? (I also don't see why you have to write multilingual/cultural works (and be a nationalist) to be considered a nobel laureate)... Be it your opinion, your arguments are weak.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Many readers, in many countries, have enjoyed Mr. Murakami's novels. Others do not like his books at all. A third group finds the novels only mildly enjoyable. But most individuals, worldwide, have never heard of either Murakami, or any other novelist. The consensus in the world is that the subject under discussion here exists only in the imaginations of those discussing it.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Do you, Mr. Richard, read Murakami (or any other Japanese writer) in Japanese, or in translation?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@philly1 @Tamarama

It is a valuable insight into the problem that Richard pinpoints with Murakami's oeuvre.

Using a French word for work when the English word for work would have fit perfectly fine is the definition of gobbledygook. You could argue that it's a more precise word to use since the erudite class hijacked the french word and then limited it to the arts... but how ostentatious is that?

When precision interferes with accessibility, most people who respect their readers go with accessibility. In this case, there is no way confusion would have resulted from using "work" instead of "oeuvre".

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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