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November 2, 2014

Why Murakami Will (Probably) Never Win the Nobel Prize

This year even Japanese television, NHK, was excited. Perhaps they really thought that, after the triple Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Japan would also get the Nobel in Literature in the person of popular author Murakami Haruki. The result was, of course, disappointment among Murakami's worldwide fan base. What surprised me, however, was not that Murakami again missed this prestigious prize. I was instead amazed that so many readers seriously believed Murakami could ever win the Nobel. That has nothing to do with whether Murakami is a good writer or not (although in my view he doesn't measure up to true Japanese giants as Soseki, Ogai, Akutagawa, Kafu, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Abe and Oe), - there are after all many excellent authors who never received the Nobel - it is simply for the objective reason that he doesn't fit the profile for the coveted prize.

Before we look at that profile, we first have to realize that the Nobel Prizes for Literature, Economics and Peace are very different from the Nobels for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. While those last three are "hard" sciences, where one can determine rather objectively how important a certain discovery has been (for example, because it has given rise to a whole new field of subsequent research), the prizes for literature, economics and peace are determined by ideology, by ideas. Should a market economy be controlled by a strict market master or should it be completely free? Should a country always invest in times of economic downturn, even if it already has a large debt, or should it be frugal and first clear-up that debt? These are all ideological choices, not science based facts. Even more so in the case of literature, where there are many different tastes and ideas about what constitutes great literature. So according to what general standard does the Nobel Committee make its literary choices? What is the profile of winning authors?

In accordance with the wishes of the founder of the prize, the Nobel Prize Committee makes its selection from a certain standard about what great literature should be. The standard has varied a bit since the prize was first awarded in 1901, but since WWII it is - just like the dominant culture in Europe - basically liberal and humanist, affirming the value of human life, emphasizing originality and autonomy, as well as addressing moral ambiguities and individual struggles with conscience. It is often engaged with the larger issues of society, without getting too overtly political; and it may be geared a little towards the left, again as is normal among European intellectuals. But the choice is always for individual human beings and their freedom, and not for ideology. As regards style, prizewinning authors are generally characterized by a complex and mature literary expression, without becoming too consciously artistic or turning into modernist fireworks.

By its selection, the prestigious Nobel institution sets up a standard of what according to them constitutes great, serious literature and then propagates that as the universal standard. In doing so, they often put the spotlight on authors who have unjustly remained somewhat in the shadows. This means of course that the Nobel Committee is not at all interested in how many fans a certain author has or who stands highest in the betting pools. The Nobel prize is not a popularity contest, but an informed and deliberate choice.

It will be clear this is not a profile into which Murakami Haruki easily fits. Take his contents, which are often said to have a rather narrow focus (with as possible exception his best novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), being mostly centered on the boredom and loneliness of young persons or others who seem to have never matured out of adolescence. He mixes in a generous amount of magic-realist elements, which is not wrong in itself (see Nobel winner Garcia Marquez) as long as it stays playful and ironic - Murakami's problem seems to be that, at least since Kafka on the Shore, he has started taking these supernatural intrusions too seriously. On the other hand, we don't find any struggles with conscience or moral problems in his novels - this in sharp contrast to this year's Nobel winner, Patrick Modiano, who writes about "the tyranny of memory of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation"and received the prize for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

It is also often said that Murakami is not improving with the years, on the contrary: a recent novel as 1Q84 is mostly judged as rather superficial and two-dimensional. So there seems to be a general down-ward trend in his work since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

And as regards the style of writing, Murakami's prose is rather bland and wooden - something which is not the fault of his translators, for it is the same in Japanese. Although that alone should not be an obstacle to getting the Nobel, it doesn't help, either.

But what does it all matter? Why would Murakami need a Nobel prize, except for reasons of (national) prestige or fan-base self-satisfaction? He is already a million seller. Countless readers are enjoying his books and - Nobel or no Nobel - will continue doing so... are prizes really relevant?

P.S.1 I like Murakami's early novels as A Wild Sheep Chase and especially his short stories best - I believe that is where his talent mainly lies. 
P.S.2 It is often stated that the Nobel Prize in the course of the 20th c., and especially at its beginning, missed a lot of great authors. That is true, but it is not the intention of the Nobel Committee to include all great authors from the world (that is over-estimating the value of the Nobel Prize!) - it would also be impossible with only one prize a year. What they want to do is much more modest: just ask attention for some of the authors who match their standard about what great literature should be. And of course everyone is free to disagree with that standard...
P.S.3 And who knows, next year the Nobel Committee changes its standard and Murakami wins after all. In that case I will be glad I put the word "probably" in my title...