A Case for Collaborative Literature

Image from the Nobel Foundation - http://nobelprize.org

Image from the Nobel Foundation – http://nobelprize.org

October is Nobel Prize month, and in 2014 the Foundation gave us a glimpse into its methodology for its 2nd century of existence: the rewarding of collaborative work.*

From October 6 to October 13, Nobel Prizes were awarded in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Economics. Of those, only Literature and Economics were awarded to individuals. All other prizes for 2014, including the Peace Prize – the crown jewel of the Nobel – were awarded jointly to two or three people whose work sometimes spanned multiple decades.

As an English PhD and a writing trainer, I find this trend disturbing. Why didn’t the Foundation award a joint prize for Literature? Notice I said “didn’t,” not “couldn’t.” There is no reason on this big beautiful planet why the Foundation could not award the Literature Prize to multiple candidates. And that they chose not to do so has disturbing ramifications for both authors and consumers of literature.

Let us consider for a moment that of all the Nobel Prizes, Literature is the only one awarded for works of art. No Nobel exists for sculpture, painting, or music, suggesting that literature has a social dimension or a political function or both. (Please note, I am not implying that those other art forms do not possess these possibilities, only that the Nobel Prize Foundation has singled out literature for these features, and that they often base the award on them in addition to artistic merit.)

Now let us consider the works of three artists, two of whom are not eligible for Nobel Prizes, one of whom is widely considered a favorite to win, and all of whom could be considered collaborative artists.

Bust of Homer from the British Museum

Bust of Homer from the British Museum

Homer – generally accepted as one of the great poets of the Western world. Set aside for the moment the question of whether he existed, The Iliad and The Odyssey are masterpieces that have influenced every Western poet from Virgil to Dante to Milton to Shakespeare to Whitman to Eliot to Walcott.

Homer created orally, inspired by the energy of the crowd, the rhythms of the ocean, and the wild winds of the Mediterranean. You and I would argue that adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins raced through his bloodstream, sharpening his creative capacity. The ancients would call this divine inspiration.

His work was kept alive for generations through Rhapsodes, singers trained in the physical arts of enunciation and delivery as well as memory, feats of endurance, aerobics, and musculature so taxing as to be worthy of Olympic medals. These same poems were later written and edited, most notably by Aristarchus of Samothrace but also by Zenodotus of Ephesus and Aristophanes of Byzantium.

Are The Iliad and The Odyssey the product of a single genius or the spirit of an age?

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson – the only widely recognized female poet to come out of the American 19th century (other than Edna St. Vincent Millay). Dickinson has inspired hundreds of thousands of women to discover a literary voice. In addition, her poetic style had a powerful influence on the Modernists and continues to serve as a source of discovery for those wishing to invent a voice for themselves.

Dickinson, however, published very few of her poems during her own lifetime. Instead, she chose to correspond with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prolific contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. Through their correspondence, he learned about her poetry, her literary style, and her rich inner life, all of which enabled him to become an intelligent and sensitive editor of her work.

Along with Mabel Loomis Todd, lover of Emily’s (married) brother and skilled editor in her own right, Higginson helped to edit Dickinson’s poems, which were published posthumously.

Because Dickinson never published within her lifetime, could she have attained her present influential stature without the assistance of Todd and Higginson?

Haruki Murakami, Japanese author, 1949 - p.

Haruki Murakami, Japanese author, 1949 – p.

Haruki Murakami – a yearly favorite for the Nobel Prize, with this year’s odds ending at 4/1. Murakami has penned 13 novels as well as numerous short stories and essays. His work has been adapted for film, stage, and radio. And while his many of his novels are surrealistic or esoteric or both, his short story collections After the Quake and Underground demonstrate his willingness and ability to transform painful natural and cultural disasters into cathartic artistic reflections.

One widely accepted theory regarding Murakami’s work is that the Western influence on him personally and prevalent in his novels has both propelled him into the international spotlight and prevented him from being fully recognized as a Japanese master. Murakami himself professed early in his career to an ignorance of this facet to his work and has only recently begun to acknowledge and defend it. As I will explain in a moment (see #1 below), I feel this is one of the greatest strengths of his work.

Like Homer and Dickinson, Murakami does not work in a vacuum. Yes, he has a reputation for being a retiring personality, so offended by the publicity generated with Norwegian Wood to the extent that he left the country to avoid it. Yes, he wrote his first (several) books while managing a jazz club, cutting onions in the kitchen by day, creating prolifically at night. And yes, his books sell quite well in Japan.

Bookstores in Japan desperately trying to remain adequately stocked with Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Bookstores in Japan desperately trying to remain adequately stocked with Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. From http://japantimes.co.jp

But there is a reason that Haruki Murakami’s books sell so fast that bookstores cannot keep up with the demand. There is a reason that people bet on him repeatedly to win the Nobel Prize. And that reason is his translators, specifically his English translators Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Philip Gabriel, although his work has also been translated into at least 50 languages, and there are many who deserve credit for his widespread popularity.

Murakami himself recognizes the important role that translation plays in his work, particularly given the complexities of the Japanese language and the nuances of his characters, symbols, and imagery. He encourages his translators (and sometimes works with them) to proceed in an approximating fashion rather than an exacting one, so the sense of the text takes precedence over precise definitions.

Does Murakami’s strength as a writer reside in his experience of a unique Japanese identity or in the amalgamation of Western and Japanese identities or both, and (how) have translators contributed to this understanding of his work?

I make these observations not because I hope the Foundation will continue to consider Murakami and his collaborators for the Prize (although I do hope so). I make these observations because it is dangerous to either assume or imply that authors work in a vacuum, both because of what it reveals about our reading of the work and second because of what it suggests about our attitude toward the act of creation.

1) When we read a work of art as local, individual, or contextual, we become blind to its universality.

Art enlightens by virtue of its transcendence. We cannot ignore the circumstances under which a work of art was created, but neither should we emphasize those. Instead, we should balance our understanding of a work’s context with its broader implications.

2) When we single out one person as responsible for, the author of, a great work of art, we suggest that creation itself is an anomaly, a freak of nature, thereby discouraging the mass of people from tapping into their own creative potential.

Nature is profligate in its fertility. We are a race of makers. And we celebrate, rightfully so, the brilliant makers among us. We may not all have the potential to write a Homeric epic, or a Dickinsonian lyric, or a Murakamian novel, but good writing, even brilliant writing, possesses some common characteristics that can be learned and that should be taught. And none of us is an island.

Dora Bruder, whose missing person ad inspired Modiano's novel of the same name.

Dora Bruder (center), whose missing person ad inspired Modiano’s novel of the same name.

As the Nobel Prize Foundation convenes in Stockholm on December 10, 2014 to honor the winners of this year’s prize, including the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Patrick Modiano, let us hope that they will remember those who have made Modiano’s work possible, including his translators, the film director Louis Malle, and the real-life Dora Bruder who died in the Holocaust. Otherwise, we must question what the Foundation is actually honoring.

*The Nobel Foundation frequently makes joint or triple awards. However, it rarely does so as many times in a single year as it did in 2014. And it almost never does so in Literature. The Economics prize is not technically a Nobel Prize, but is sponsored by the Swiss Bank in honor of Alfred Nobel. See http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/

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