If you follow book news, you may already realize that the Nobel Prize in Literature has acted a little like a talent scout in recent years. The prize has been used to throw light on writers more of us should probably know about (Jelinek, Le Clezio) than recognize undeniable masters (Murakami, Lessing, McCarthy).
Or else the Prize has been a tool for making a political statement by picking dissident artists (in the Eastern bloc, for instance) who've long suffered in opposition to totalitarian regimes in their homelands.
Which made the selection of 56-year-old Chinese novelist Mo Yan for this year's Nobel a bit of surprise. The guy's not an outcast. He's successful. He's had at least one book made into a film. He's an active participant in the government's official writers' groups.
So what happened? Well, maybe the Nobel hit this year closer to the mark of what most people think about when they think of what a prize should be. It's about talent, brilliance, and less about political factors (though I'm sure that's a part of this one too - I read one pundit who sees the choice of Mo as another gesture, like the Beijing Olympics, of inviting China to belong to the world community).
I only know Mo's work in passing - but this time around with the Nobel, everything that's been said about his artistic powers makes me more interested in reading him. It's the same curiosity I felt when Kertesz got it - and, after reading Kertesz, I knew the Nobel committee had been right.
Still, it feels pretty lame that a major prize needs to be parsed in order to make sense of its recipient. I definitely feel the same frustration as Cristian Mihai noted on his blog soon after the Nobel was announced. To cope with the aggravation, I just remind myself that Conrad didn't get the Nobel; Joyce didn't; Proust didn't; Pound didn't (well, ok, maybe his whole fascism thing made him ineligible). In the end, this prize is at the mercy of the people on the committee. (That's partly the reason why I prefer to dwell in the lands of fantasy these days: Shoot, if I had been on the committee, I'd have recommended George R.R. Martin for the Nobel.)
Guess fans of Murakami (in the days leading up to this year's Nobel, some betting firms gave him great odds) will have to wait another year. Hope we don't have to wait much longer than that.