The perennial entries to discussion around awards of any kind are:
1. Who should win?
2. And who will win?
We have some ideas, lots of them, actually – and we’re not at all in agreement. We’re more concerned with #1 than #2, and we’re hoping you’ll find this an interesting conversation to read – for us, it was an interesting discussion to have.
But who are we, you ask? Four guys who’ve been selling books for many years, and reading and living them for longer:
- R.J. Wheaton, Supply Chain & author of a forthcoming work on Portishead
- Greg Cooke, Fiction
- Sebastian Hanna, Nonfiction and Poetry
- And myself, Justin Sorbara-Hosker – Online Adult Trade.
The discussion turned out to be longer than we thought, so this is part one of a two part conversation – stay tuned.
RJW: Dave Eggers should win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Let's review. His 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was an incredibly moving, honest memoir of a young man raising his younger brother after the deaths of both parents. Since then, he has written a novel, (Sacrament or You Shall Know Our Velocity), short stories, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved Where the Wild Things Are. He has founded the big, vibrant literary journal McSweeney's in an age when literary journals seemed to be a dying breed; McSweeney's now publishes The Believer, a monthly arts magazine, and Wholphin, a DVD magazine showcasing short and underground films.
But all those are the minor works. In Zeitoun he wrote compellingly about the experience of a Muslim-American in the bitter aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, exposing for a large audience the faultlines of American justice. What is the What is a novelized account of the experience of a young boy in the Sudanese Civil War. He has blurred the lines between novel and memoir -- a hotly contested topic in recent years -- in ways that is firmly in the service of social justice and human rights. He is the co-founder of 826 Valencia, an inspiring literacy project that serves high-needs urban communities in the United States. In short: in his career Dave Eggers is making a case for the role of literature in the modern world: active, engaged, experimental, and positive.
GC: Oh, boy. Rob, I would have liked you to have been strapped into a lie detector while you wrote that, just to see if you were serious. I know you like Eggers, but the Nobel? Yikes.
I, like many self-involved youngsters, liked , A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But I also recognized that the last 30 pages of stream of consciousness moaning about his father was a blatant attempt to turn a book that’s essentially Marley & Me with a kid instead of a dog into capital ‘L’ literature. Too harsh? Sorry. It’s just a reaction to years of friends saying that HWSG was the best book ever. Usually the same friends who thought Garden State was the best movie ever.
I’m not saying Egger’s heart isn’t in the right place – he has certainly earned his props for 826 Valencia, but as a writer, I just don’t find him original. Whether he’s riffing off Katrina, child soldiers, or Where The Wild Things Are, it seems like he picks his subjects on the basis of “what’s a hot touchstone I can build a book around” rather than seeking out an untraveled path and shining his writer-journalist light on it. Kind of like a literary Family Guy.
JSH: My friend and colleague Robert is incredibly well-read, and while our tastes are often in sync, we’re not on the same page here. Dave Eggers should not win the Nobel Prize in literature. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was winking, self-absorbed navel-gazing for hipsters, as were much of his future projects: postmodern style over substance. Who writes an autobiography with footnotes? Or any kind of biography with footnotes, for that matter – endnotes, please. Robert is right in defining Eggers as a modern writer, however – writers used to be anonymous, or celebrities, or icons – Eggers has made himself a brand and an industry. While I can’t knock his charitable works, if anybody this twee wins the Nobel, Steinbeck will spin in his grave, and Hemingway may well rise from the grave in fury.
And really, why can’t his magazine just look like a regular magazine? Yet more “Look at me!”
SH: I’ve not the fury about it of Justin (or Hemingway), but I think that it is too early for Eggers to win; he deserves acknowledgement however -- as much as a social example as an author. I wouldn’t say ‘brand,’ more a widely impactful and successful force for positive change, someone who has used his own success to benefit others. Eggers has also consistently invested himself in ensuring beauty to writing form, through choice of paper, bindery, so that these physical objects are again treated as prizes in the world. As a bookseller, I find that inspiring.
As a writer, he has also chosen under-attended subjects, and treated them with compassion. Zeitoun is a great moral work, one that would sit well with Steinbeck, I imagine. If Eggers can seem like he is writing to an audience who already believe as he does, a kind of CNBC of writing for liberals seeking an affirming fix, it’s also unfair to ignore how few documents where compassionate attention is actually paid to Muslims in America. Eggers does what too few do. For all Justin’s concern of his “twee” hipster self-regard, what ironically makes Zeitoun so great is Eggers’ own effacement -- he disappears and brings forward the story of someone else so convincingly. This is political and important: he makes us aware of a post 911 Muslim-American Katrina hero, and makes him deeply sympathetic – shows the reader painfully clearly that no matter how great one’s effort to help, it’s so hard to emerge above the limits of hate.
JSH: Robert and Sebastian are entirely correct that Eggers tackles essential events, and has grasped the novelist’s central role – that of discussing the world we live in, but if you want to read about Katrina, check out Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (this book should be much more well-read than it is); or just watch Treme. Oh, and even if I'm dead wrong (entirely possible), he's too young.
What is the What does seem like a work that the Nobel committee would take notice of -- but if you want to read about what life is like for modern African people, here’s an idea: read a book written by an African. Here’s an even better idea: an African should win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Namely, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.
This is the writer who should win, and judging by what Nobel rewards, he may well be the man who does. If you believe that the Nobel should award a writer that contributes to the elevation of the human condition, the one who speaks truth to power, this is the winner for you. Long ago in my first year of an English Lit degree, I simultaneously took an African lit course and a Contemporary Brit lit course. Stunning at the time to see how different those bodies of literature were; and while many of the Brit books on my syllabus were experimental, progressive, even occasionally entertaining, they weren’t really saying anything of substance.
Works like Things Fall Apart (Achebe has not won the Nobel yet either, which seems a striking omission), Kongi’s Harvest (Soyinka is a Nobel recipient, among many other honours), Nervous Conditions, and Thiongo’s Weep Not Child were straightforward and enlightening – and seeking to affect change that was, and still is, sorely needed. Thiong’o has worked in drama (producing works that got him imprisioned in his native Kenya), novels, short stories, children’s literature, essays – and anyone who has written a novel on toilet paper while serving prison time for offending the ruling regime feels like a shoe-in for this award, to me.
RJW: I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t speak about some of the Canadian writers that are good tips for the Nobel. Canada has some rich stylists with international perspectives – including Michael Ondaatje – and writers who, like Margaret Atwood, are prolific, active voices in the cultural life of one of the most multinational countries in the world. Atwood’s concerns take her from nineteenth-century murder cases to dystopian theocracies of the future; novels like The Handmaid's Tale engage forcefully against extremism in public life.
JSH: Margaret Atwood is an entirely likely, and potentially worthy recipient – and let’s be honest, a Canadian winning would be a big deal. Long a favorite author of Indigo’s, Atwood’s subject matter frequently concerns the world we live in, and the challenges afflicting it – over a 40 year career, this icon of Canadian literature has employed fiction, poetry and essays to explore myriad subjects: Canadian identity, the role of myth in modern culture, what it means to be a woman – and most recently, used the vehicle of science fiction to highlight environmental issues in recent works such as Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Considering her body of work, as well as her outspoken political stances and activism speak to her being right in the Nobel Committee’s wheelhouse. The only strike against her may well be the Canadian identity that she has made one of her many themes; the award does tend to be rather Eurocentric, so she may be an unlikely winner, at least for now.
SH: Alice Munro deserves the honour. Partly perhaps, as my choice again is personal, I feel in living in Ontario that she finely captures the places about which she writes. And also, she has seen in our reputed national ‘modesty’ a complexity and depth of experience that many others either refused to credit coming from so ‘small’ a setting, or were unable to see in situations so ‘commonplace’ and ‘domestic’. In so many of her works, and most recently, in Too Much Happiness, Munro is unusually engaging, as characters are caught with clarity and precision, our sense of their challenges and complex predicaments intensifies as we read, as a gathering of sparse details and deeply human culmination.
RJW: Another winner I’d like to see is Barry Unsworth. Unsworth is a bit of a roamer in the literary world. His novels range from medieval Sicily and ancient Greece to the eve of the First World War. He writes with incredible perceptiveness about the supple and treacherous ways of power. Morality Play is about a traveling theatre troupe in medieval England, who break the rules of the craft by incorporating details of a local murder into their performances, thrilling the community but incurring the attention of the local feudal rulers. It's about the relationship between crime, media, and power -- published with eerie resonance at the same time as the OJ Simpson trial. The Song of Kings is about the behind-the-throne political machinations in the run-up to the Trojan War, presenting Odysseus as a ruthless political fixer who manipulates the king and the local media -- the community of bards from which Homer came -- to achieve his personal ambitions. The novel was published in 2002, again sounding overtones with international political events of the day.
But his masterpiece may be Sacred Hunger, published in 1992 and sharing the Man Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It concerns the slave trade in the eighteenth century, and tells a shocking story about how the trade and power routes of the time have inescapable consequences. Family and friends are torn apart, surprising new alliances made, and the question posed is: can we ever make relationships with the world, and with one another, that are not overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. His next book -- The Quality of Mercy -- will be published soon, and will continue the story begun in Sacred Hunger.
GC: I’m glad you called out Unsworth. Everything he writes is, and I don’t use this word lightly, essential. Talking about modern English literature without talking about Unsworth is like talking about South American literature without mentioning Borges (who, if he was still among the living, I’d be writing about). Sacred Hunger does all the things you say it does, but it’s also stunning in its construction. The parallel stories of Kemp and Paris, the warped mirror of their two communities, the ambiguity of power – this floored me when it was put in my hands by a friend about ten years ago, and I’ve been trying to get it onto people’s reading lists ever since.
And while, yes, Sacred Hunger is his masterpiece, all of his work speaks to that lofty “human condition” thing without losing an ounce of excitement and readability. And that seems to be important to the Nobel Committee lately. In the last 20 years the laureates have been writers like Llosa, Pamuk, Saramago, and Gordimer, whose work is profound, important, and accessible. But here I am arguing why Unsworth might win, when what I really want to say is that he ought to win.
Stay tuned for part two of this blog, where we discuss such candidates as Didion, McCarthy, Murakami, Thiong'o, Transtromer, and Murray ...