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No one would think to begrudge the grower of a prize-winning pumpkin tipping the scales at a country fair. Pity, though, the poor writer saddled with similar, heavyweight fortune. With any honor bestowed, she is guaranteed equal obloquy. Both Doris Lessing and Elfriede Jelinek, with their recent $1,415,969.81 checks (at today’s rate for 10,000,000 Swedish Kroner), also earned the opprobria of professional readers who took some measure of glee in dismissing work more polysemous than one might have been led to suppose.
There are problems and there are problems, of course. Perhaps your temperament doesn’t run to hand-wringing over the fortunes of newly minted Nobel Laureates. If so, pay no attention, tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. CET, to the announcement of the latest lamb to lie down on yonder altar made of dynamite.
For some of us, though, there is the attraction, in a rhetorically stunted time, of a celebration–any celebration–of literature that makes news not out of authorial behavior but of endeavor. For, whatever biases may surely be at work in the sanctum sanctorum of the Swedish see, some sort of serious conversation is taking place there about who will be cast in the fleeting but meaningful role as Writer of the Moment.
Who should win? I don’t care. If pressed, my preference would be that it go to no one I’ve ever heard of and whose work, upon my reading it, engages, moves, teaches, surprises. Short of this, from my chauvinistic point of view, there could be no better time for an American to win–the sort of American writer, for example, whose writing betrays a humility about our national soul that all this season’s Gosh Darn Greatest Country Ever!!!!!!™ rhetoric does not. For as much as the Nobel is a marker for seriousness of literary endeavor, it is a prize lately inclined to favor a definition of “serious” that embraces a writer’s political orientation–political in the Greek sense, what it means to be a citizen–in this case a citizen of a declining world. As such, mightn’t it be useful, right about now, were the world’s readers reminded that we Americans do indeed have a few writers who are serious in just that very way , and at just this weird, dark, dim, dumb time.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”