Patrick Modiano Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

French author Patrick Modiano wins the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature. Over the past ten or so years, the Nobel has certainly favored rather obscure European authors. I can’t say anything about Modiano good or bad; his books are barely available in the United States, and I haven’t read anything by him. Here’s the announcement from the NY Times:

Patrick Modiano, the French novelist whose works often explore the traumas of the Nazi occupation of France and hinge on the themes of memory, loss and the puzzle of identity, won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

In an announcement in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy cited Mr. Modiano’s ability to evoke “the most ungraspable human destinies” in his work.

The Nobel, one of the most prestigious and financially generous awards in the world, comes with a $1.1 million prize. The literature prize is given out for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.

Mr. Modiano, who has published about 30 works, has written novels, children’s books and screenplays, first rose to prominence in 1968 with his novel “La Place de l’Étoile.”

An unexpected choice, to say the least. I imagine most of the literary who is scrambling to find out who exactly Modiano is.

Why should Chaos Horizon, a website dedicated to predicting the Hugo and Nebula awards, care about the Nobel Prize in Literature? There are several reasons:

1. More and more authors involved in speculative fiction are emerging as Nobel Prize candidates. Authors like Cormac McCarthy (The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel), Philip Roth (The Plot Against America is an alternative history), and Haruki Murakami (too many speculative works to list), have all dipped into the SFF well. Other less likely candidates (which the Nobel seems to be favoring) like Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin are even more obviously from the speculative world.

2. The Nobel Prize shows how eccentric, biased, and unreliable all literary prizes are. Just like the Hugo and the Nebula—and like the Booker, Pulitzer, and so forth—the Nobel is filled with controversy, inconsistencies, and flat out confusion. Horace Engdahl, a member of the prize-awarding Swedish Academy, has grown notorious for his comments: “denouncing American literature as too insular,” or that too much mainstream literature is cut off from life. For an allegedly unbiased judge, he seems rather biased.

3. The Nobel Prize shows how awards get stuck in patterns. Right now, the Nobel seems intent on honoring European work that has not broken into the mainstream, as if selling lots of novels is an automatic marker of not “being serious.” I’m not sure why the Nobel is taking this stance, but the idea that a little-known author French author is a more appropriate winner than a mainstream author like Murakami or McCarthy only makes sense if you believe that “true literature” (whatever that might be) has to come from the fringe, not the center. It seems that if the Nobel wants that, couldn’t they honor lesser known African, Indian, Middle-Eastern, or even American writers? Why are Europeans so central to the Nobel’s conception of serious literature? If you want somewhat lesser known, how Leslie Marmon Silko, and her fabulously complex books about Native American identity? I could list others, but I don’t want to seem biased towards American literature (which I obviously and clearly am).

4. So, lastly, by engaging with who wins the Nobel, we ask ourselves questions about what kind of literature should be valued, and how these award might go about valuing that literature.

The Hugo and the Nebula are very different that the Nobel: they are not juried, but instead voted on by large pools of voters, and they aren’t anywhere near as prestigious. Just like the Nobel, though, they reveal the biases and conflicts of their audience, and that’s why they’re interesting to follow.

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