Herta who? The news from Stockholm left, as usual, a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is Herta Müller and why haven’t we heard more about her? As someone who has spent almost a decade working to bring the best new international literary work to America, I felt a particular frustration at those first reports: once again, Nobel coverage seemed to be descending into churlishness rather than an eagerness to share important international voices. Not that one can count on the Nobel Prize in Literature Committee to be anything but unpredictable in their choices, but still, wasn’t this the year that one of the well-loved waiters-in-the-wings — Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, or, yes, even, Philip Roth — might be rewarded? Couldn’t this year, at last, yield a global literary love fest? And, of perhaps even greatest frustration for an international literary activist, how had yet another great writer passed America by without leaving a deeper footprint at an earlier stage of their writing career, particularly a writer who clearly isn’t all that obscure?
First, to clear up any misconceptions: Herta Müller is not unknown. Far from it. Unlike say J.M.G. Le Clézio, last year’s Nobelist whose constant travel and self-exile to the wilds of Albuquerque kept him out of sight and out of mind for many members of the Parisian — and global — literati, Müller, who lives in the literary hotbed of Berlin, is a well-recognized and up-to-date member of the current German literary scene. As a rights agent friend in Frankfurt pointed out, Müller’s published 20 books, won practically every major literary award in her home country and is on this year’s shortlist for Germany’s equivalent of the National Book Award for her latest novel Atemschaukel (a title with hints of Paul Celan’s Atemwende.) Müller’s works were published here in the U.S. by University of Nebraska press and Northwestern’s Hydra line (two great wellsprings of literature in translation in the U.S.) and her Dublin Impac Award-winning novel, Land of the Green Plums was championed in hardcover by Metropolitan Books’ well-respected Sara Bershtel, one of the last standing publishers of foreign works employed by a major trade house. Finally, Müller’s novels have been translated by some of our best German translators, Philip Boehm and Michael Hofmann among them, a clear signal in its own right. Harold Bloom, per the Washington Post, may never have heard of Herta Müller, but she wasn’t an under-the-radar a choice. In fact, Michael Orthofer, literary translation’s own Scoop, even called this particular beauty contest in advance.
So why then such surprise at the choice? In the press onslaught of the last few days, the same old accusations have been bandied back and forth. Either America is too isolated, doesn’t translate enough literature and American readers are thus woefully ignorant (which can’t actually account for any surprise among Europeans) and/or the Swedes are insular elitists with a political agenda. It’s been 16 years since an American won (Toni Morrison in 1993); in the last 15 years all but one of the winners lived in Europe. The Nobel Prize Committee picks artists who remain obscure in the Anglophone world (Eyvind Johnson, Dario Fo, anyone?). Americans/Anglophones don’t get the rest of the world.
What else is new? Yet, there’s another frustration shining through the cracks of this inevitably cranky coverage. And it’s a frustration that is shared across international borders for it goes straight to the heart of the current global discussion over the health of literary publishing and literature itself. The problem many non-specialists (and here I count a large swath of publishers, press, booksellers, lovers of literature and non-Germanists etc) have with Herta Müller isn’t that she isn’t known. It’s that, at least until they’ve all had a chance to read her and perhaps discover differently, she’s not better loved. She’s critically acclaimed in Germany, but she’s not a bestseller. She’s topical, but it’s unclear whether her writing is all that accessible. (In one New York Times article, her own translator calls her work “dense.”) Internationally, she’s well-published. But in no country has she ever had that lucky break: a literary novel that succeeds commercially through passionate, widespread word of mouth. Perhaps that novel is still to come.
In other times, a lack of European or other public embrace might not prove so bothersome. Critical acclaim and commercial success have always been uneasy bedfellows, and rightfully so. One man’s brilliance is another man’s impenetrability. She adores Finnegans Wake, he’s lost. He loves Faulkner, she’s doesn’t get it. (Joyce, by the way, never won the Nobel. Faulkner did and it changed his life.) And though we all prefer to claim that great literature is universal, the reality is that accessibility of stories can be limited by cultural experience and occasionally by translation’s own limits, especially when it comes to language and voice. And anyway, part of the point of major prizes is to elevate the critically acclaimed to major commercial success, right?
But, c’mon, we’re also talking the Nobel Prize here (or so the refrain goes.) How hard can it be to find one acclaimed, superbly talented writer per year who touches a universal nerve, rendering their work accessible across borders? There were certainly plenty of such candidates on this year’s inevitable Nobel betting lists: Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, Haruki Murakami, Adonis, Alice Munro. It doesn’t need to be someone everyone has heard of, but please oh please make it a writer like Naguib Mahfouz or Wislawa Szymborska, the discovery of whose works has delighted millions of readers everywhere.
For, these are not ordinary times. Right now, literary fiction is caught in a particularly virulent crossfire on the battlefield known as publishing. With so much competition for the reader’s time and attention, literature (as opposed to say, commercial fiction) feels both endangered — and ever more precious. And though it isn’t PC to say so, there’s nothing literature’s champions want more at the moment than a hero/heroine to push: an Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel García Márquez, J. M. Coetzee, or on the younger side, a Junot Diaz or another Bolaño. They want a writer that they can love, not just admire. For it’s that combination of love and admiration that fuels their own energy to keep up the buzz. That collective gasp you heard five years ago when the National Book Award nominees were all relative unknowns? That wasn’t the gasp of the unwashed (whoever they might be). That was a gasp of disappointment from the knowledgeable and the lovers of literature—and yes, corporate publicists and booksellers, not to mention librarians, bloggers, book critics, event programmers, and above all vocal readers who do the most to actively promote reading in this country—all those who knew that by turning a major literary award for excellence into an overt opportunity to push brand new voices, thereby giving the awards a distracting agenda, the NBA committee had made the enthusiasts’ job of spreading the word that much more difficult.
Our largest awards should be as agenda-free as possible. And though the political club is probably overused against the Nobel, the committee has been known to take their mandate to celebrate outstanding works that tend toward “the ideal direction” a bit literally. A tie to political realities, to themes of dispossession and exile as recent choices have had is not necessarily a bad thing. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked, this autumn’s 20th year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has made the selection of this particular Nobelist, a writer out of the Communist East, especially pointed. That’s a good thing. The hope for literature’s champions is that her novels will produce an emotional jolt equal to the work’s historical significance and linguistic merit.
To be perfectly clear (I can hear the wolves outside the door): Our major literary prizes shouldn’t be popularity contests any more than they should be political ones. And I’m personally looking forward to reading Atemschaukel when it’s translated (as it certainly will be). Word is this latest book might be one of Müller’s best. Based on interviews with the poet Oskar Pastior (who was imprisoned from 1945 to 1949) and other Gulag survivors, it’s a story of a young man, a member of the minority ethnic German community in Romania, who is thrown into the Russian Gulags at the end of World War II. It’s a book steeped in the devastating history of 20th century Europe. I’m also looking forward to learning much more about this major writer with roots in Communist Romania. By all accounts, her prose is lyrical, her attention to language intense, and her themes some of my favorites: displacement, exile, translation, memory, violence and power. And like the best of our literary heroes, Müller’s a born rebel. According to noted translator Anthea Bell, Müller had “the courage necessary to have been outspoken even before moving to the West in 1987, two years before the Wall came down and the whole system collapsed.”
In other words, I’m ready to get excited about a new discovery—and to fall in love. I hope all the readers of this column give Herta Müller a try and we all fall in love together. But there’s another political reality here and that’s if we don’t, it won’t be taken lightly. And we won’t be in any mood to spare the Nobel Prize Committee. The last thing the literary world needs right now is to be told to eat our spinach and whose politics we must admire. We also deserve, and have always deserved, pleasurable texts. And in this late stage of literature, the most eminent prize awarded in the literary world should be awarded to authors who help elevate the profile of literary fiction. Otherwise, the folks in Stockholm may be guilty of the worst sin that they can commit: the relegating of literature to irrelevance. I do hope they got it right this time. Literature may not be able to withstand many more disappointments.