Pillbox

Nobel laureate transcends politics

The National Endowment for the Arts’ 2009 report “Reading on the Rise” said that 47 percent of adults read at least one work of fiction in 2008. Not even half of America made it through a single short story that year, and that statistic is considered an improvement.

But we do read. We spend our time online: watching videos, browsing photos, and reading text online. From Facebook statuses to online news to our favorite nearly pornographic e-book, we are probably reading more words than ever; they simply aren’t coming from literary classics or the nation’s poet laureate. And if anything, the last decade has shown that we can collectively come together and read, from community-based big reads and one-book projects to the thermonuclear success of a single boy wizard.

None of this is wrong: Reading and writing — online or not — and developing tastes are important, even if these tastes are shared with our 450 million closest friends. But for voracious readers, there is a constant goal to expand one’s oeuvre, to find something new. So it’s worth a look when, each year in autumn, the Swedish Academy places the Nobel crown on the head of their most recently glorified author.

This year, the prize went to Mo Yan, a Chinese fiction writer who is probably utterly unknown to most American readers. His work, unlike much contemporary Chinese fiction, has been translated into English, largely because of Howard Goldblatt’s more than two decades of translating Chinese writers. Because of this, you could start reading one of Mo’s books now. Seriously, don’t let the rest of this article get in your way. Start with Red Sorghum or Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. You can even get the latter on your Kindle or e-reader of choice.

Many people have had their views of the Nobel Prize handed to them wholesale by the media, and think that these prizes are simply political gestures. Particularly resentful Americans believe that the Swedish Academy’s stubbornness to reward the best of our own country’s writers means it should be ignored. Politics are certainly at work in these awards, but the Academy still manages to select writers of fiction that is absolutely worth reading. The 2008 laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio’s stories are terrifyingly depressing. Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, defined whole genres. John M. Coetzee, the 2003 laureate, is one of our best living writers.

Politics are obviously involved. China can now proudly claim a Nobel Prize and at the same time happily continue pretending that the prizes its nationals won in 2000 and 2010 never happened. Arguably, Mo deserves the award for that alone: He has managed to successfully write oft-satirical novels, which are widely banned; has gained global acclaim; and yet remains in good standing with the Chinese government.

For example, take The Republic of Wine — an engrossing novel that rotates between detective Ding Gou’er and the short stories of Li Yidou. Between the fantastical elements of investigating baby cannibalism, audacious displays of government corruption and debauchery, and the uneven talents of a young writer, Mo is able to guide us through a tour of food and drink in China. Right from the lady trucker opening, Mo proves that he can spin a tale that delights, while providing a greater social commentary.

But consider these literary awards as recommendations from some very well-read friends. You may now go read Mo’s work, or, if you are a holdout, peruse the National Book Award finalists or wait until the Man Booker Prize is announced tomorrow. Awards will keep coming, the books will keep piling up: Read one.