Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.

I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.

The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.

I'm reading Mo's Red Sorghum now, and I just watched the very impressive film adaptation of the novel. The film's tone and scope reminds me of Akira Kurosowa, while Mo's intense prose reminds me a bit of Yukio Mishima -- and, now that I think about it, I've never felt I really understood the cultural context of Akira Kurosowa or Yukio Mishima either.

Should we judge a writer based on political stance? I feel alienated and offended by the explicit or implicit political stances of many popular English-speaking authors like Martin Amis, Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy. These authors' political stances must be even more controversial in numerous other corners of the world that are less Anglophone-phile, and readers around the world might misunderstand the subtle shadings of novels by Amis, Roth and McCarthy just as we are unable to understand many subtle shadings in Mo Yan. We westerners don't need to look all the way to China to find walls of intercultural incomprehension; there are plenty of walls in our own society.

Do we even understand Mo Yan's cultural references well enough to know what his political stance is all? I don't think we do. His sharp words seem to cut in multiple directions at all times, and he writes more vividly of personal relationships than of national issues. The title of Red Sorghum refers to a bloodied wheat field after a massacre, but it also refers obliquely to a sexual dalliance that earlier took place in the same wheat field.

Do we really understand Mo Yan's standing in his own country? He is apparently very popular with Chinese readers, but we don't know if his relationship with the Chinese government is a comfortable or uncomfortable one. It can't be too comfortable; his novels don't sugarcoat his society's problems at all.

Finally, since irony is so dominant in Mo's narrative style, shouldn't we grant him a presumption of irony when, say, he defends censorship, or shows up to deliver his Nobel lecture wearing a full-monty Mao jacket? He seems to have a taste for provocation, but provocative minds are not often doctrinaire minds.

One thing's for sure: Mo Yan can deliver a hell of a Nobel Prize lecture. He responded both obliquely and directly to his recent international critics with his autobiographical words, as in this section near the end of the speech:

The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:

For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these.

Even though I would prefer to say nothing, since it is something I must do on this occasion, let me just say this:

I am a storyteller, so I am going to tell you some stories.

When I was a third-grade student in the 1960s, my school organized a field trip to an exhibit of suffering, where, under the direction of our teacher, we cried bitter tears. I let my tears stay on my cheeks for the benefit of our teacher, and watched as some of my classmates spat in their hands and rubbed it on their faces as pretend tears. I saw one student among all those wailing children – some real, some phony – whose face was dry and who remained silent without covering his face with his hands. He just looked at us, eyes wide open in an expression of surprise or confusion. After the visit I reported him to the teacher, and he was given a disciplinary warning. Years later, when I expressed my remorse over informing on the boy, the teacher said that at least ten students had done what I did. The boy himself had died a decade or more earlier, and my conscience was deeply troubled when I thought of him. But I learned something important from this incident, and that is: When everyone around you is crying, you deserve to be allowed not to cry, and when the tears are all for show, your right not to cry is greater still.

It's not my place to explain or defend the Nobel committee's choice in honoring Mo Yan, but I do know he's a powerful and clever writer, and I'm going to keep reading his books and trying to understand him better.


Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with outrage around the world because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment. He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as to Tibet.

view /MoYanNobelSpeech
Monday, December 10, 2012 11:24 pm
Mo Yan delivers Nobel lecture in a classic Mao jacket
Levi Asher

There really is only one literary award that awes me. The Pulitzer prize? Everybody gets one eventually. National Book Award? Too clubby for my tastes. But the Nobel Prize for Literature is usually something special, and has by far the best track record of every major literary award.

J. M. Coetzee. Orhan Pamuk. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kenzaburo Oe. Mario Vargas Llosa. Seamus Heaney. Derek Walcott. Pablo Neruda. Doris Lessing. Jean-Paul Sartre. William Golding. Jose Saramago. Nadine Gordimer. Albert Camus. Harold Pinter. Gunter Grass. Dario Fo. Toni Morrison. Samuel Beckett. This is a list worth admiring for its originality, its global awareness, its dedication to a powerful standard of greatness. Today, Mo Yan of China joins the list.

I'd love to tell you all about Mo Yan's novels. But I'm going to level with you: I don't recall ever hearing his name before today, and I also still haven't found the time to read Tomas Transtromer (2011), or even Herta Muller (2009). I'm going to get to all of them eventually, but I'm just running a bit behind.

However, I can point to two people who have read Mo Yan before. First is M. A. Orthofer of the Literary Saloon, who was lukewarm about The Change in 2010. Next is a writer who really should have won the Nobel Prize himself, John Updike, who considered Mo's Big Breasts and Wide Hips in the New Yorker in 2005. Like Orthofer, Updike is clearly not won over wholly by Mo Yan's bombastic style, but suspects that his work may be valuable for the significant truths it reveals about its own society. Updike writes:

Professor Goldblatt, in his introduction, explains, “In a relentlessly unflattering portrait of his male protagonist, Mo Yan draws attention to what he sees as a regression of the human species and a dilution of the Chinese character. Amid so much slapstick mayhem and mammary lewdness, this moral risks being lost. What does bear in upon the exhausted reader is the crushing misery of Chinese existence in the last century.

I'm planning to dig in and evaluate this author myself. After I get done with Muller and Transtromer.

UPDATE: A random Google search led me to the discovery that, even though I have never read a Mo Yan book, I had in fact written about him indirectly in a 2008 review of the New York Times Book Review. Here's what I discovered I wrote:

I had more trouble with Jonathan Spence's abstruse article on Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. There's a whole lot of activity here regarding pig carcasses (and an awful illustration of a flying, oozing pig carcass that looks like a rejected design for a Pink Floyd concert poster). I read the article twice and I still don't understand what this book is about. Spence's dry, academic delivery doesn't help. He tells us that the book's main character transforms himself into five different animals during the course of the narrative, then remarks that "Such a fictional procedure is, of course, fraught with difficulties of tone and narration". Indeed.


Mo Yan of China wins the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Reviews of his work by M. A. Orthofer and John Updike.

view /MoYan
Thursday, October 11, 2012 06:39 pm
Mo Yan, Chinese novelist
Levi Asher

1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.

2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.

3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.

4. Speaking of translation, I've been browsing Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos. An interesting tidbit from page 303:

In 1870, Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, released a statement to the press about his sovereign's negative reaction to a request from the French ambassador that the German royal family should commit itself to never accepting the throne of Spain. The statement also reported that the Kaiser didn't want to talk to the French ambassador again and had sent him a message to stay away by the hand of the "adjutant of the day".

The "adjutant of the day" -- "Adjutant von Dienst" -- names a high-ranking courier, an aristocratic aide-de-camp. But it happens to be almost identical to a word of French -- "adjudant". When Bismarck's statement was received in Paris it was instantly translated by the Havas news agency service and wired to all newspapers, which reprinted it in the "special extra" that went on sale straightaway. In the Havas version, "Adjutant" is not translated, but left in its original form. The effect of that one word was enormous. French "adjutant" means "warrant officer" ("sergeant-major" in Britain). It therefore seemed that the French ambassador has been treated with grievous disrespect by having had a message from the Kaiser to him by a messenger of such low rank. The French were outraged. Six days later, they declared war.

So, maybe the Franco-Prussian War (which led, decades later, to World War I and eventually World War II) could have been avoided by a more careful translation. I hate when that happens.

5. Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma is the second book I've read recently about Gertrude Stein's puzzling long dalliance with the fascist Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France during World War II (the first was Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm). The relationship appears so inexplicable on the surface -- among other things, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas were both American Jews, and the Vichy regime tended to export foreign Jews to concentration camps -- that it takes at least two books to untangle it. Barbara Will's Unlikely Collaboration digs much deeper than Janet Malcolm's Two Lives, and lays out the elliptical ideological and aesthetic sympathies that led Gertrude Stein to warmly embrace the arrival of fascism in France. A fascinating book designed to stir up the uncomfortable complexities of 20th century history, and of the Modernist literary movement in its own time.

6. In a wonderful new audiobook, Stephen Fry reads the great poetry of Czeslaw Milosz.

7. And while we're on the international tip, here's Tara Olmsted on Cesar Aria.

8. Back here in the United States of America ...we're sad to hear that the Friendly's restaurant chain may close. "Going to Friendly's" was a big part of my childhood, and apparently it's a big part of Nicholson Baker's literary method as well.

9. J. C. Hallman is blogging the letters of William and Henry James (I've enjoyed reading these letters too).

10. Dignity by Ken Layne is a different kind of epistolary novel: "A packet of hand-scrawled letters found in a stanger's rucksack tells of self-sufficient communities growing from the ruins of California's housing collapse and the global recession."

11. Chasing Ray blogger Colleen Mondor has written a book, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska.

12. William Kennedy's new novel Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes takes us from Albany to 1957-era Cuba.

13. Chuck Palahniuk looks like Abe Lincoln?

14. And, finally: don't people look foolish when they lose their temper?

view /Regions2011
Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:43 am
Levi Asher

1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.

2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)

Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:

3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.

4. Rainn Wilson of The Office explains why he is a Baha-i, and why he wrote a book called Soul Pancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions. Looks like some wise stuff -- I may chew on some of these questions myself.

5. The history of Soft Skull, which may or may not be coming to an end.

6. A friend alerted me to the Yale Repertory Theater's production of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, starring Bill Camp. Looks good, though I still like my version too.

7. . "It ain't fair, John Sinclair". A video performance by the Michigan activist, poet and one-time manager of the MC5, directed by Laki Vazakas.

8. Breaking the Poetry Code: where poetry and electronic publishing meet.

9. If Other Directors Made The Social Network. My favorite: Christopher Guest.

10. Antonia Fraser has written a book, Must You Go, about her marriage to the late playwright Harold Pinter.

11. The Most Difficult Book I Punched In The Face.

12. Wikileaks and War Poetry by Daniel Swift.

13. Ten things that get called (mostly incorrectly) "Kafkaesque".

14. A much-needed documentary about the great, anguished, complicated 1960s-era folksinger/protest singer Phil Ochs, There But For Fortune.

15. Taoism is being allowed a revival -- a very modest one, but a revival nonetheless -- in China.

16. Reza Aslan talks about the latest Words Without Borders anthology Tablet & Pen on the Colbert Report. Also don't forget The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, also from Words Without Borders, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, and here's a website of literary international jokes called An International Joke.

17. Wanderlust, a dynamic display of "history's greatest journeys, from Magellan to Kerouac".

18. 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words From Around The World.

19. Speaking of words, I'm pissed off that bluth was not chosen as the Word of the Year. Maybe it'll make the list for 2011.

view /SeaOfPossibilities
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:35 pm
Levi Asher

1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.

2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.

3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.

4. Susan Hill ponders whether or not a writer must tweet.

5. Human Landscapes.

6. Can't get enough of those HTMLGiant literary doppelgangers.

7. Don't Forget The Motor City by David Bryne.

8. I'm not particularly freaked out (as some are) that Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground, one of the most exciting rock drummers of all time (she used mallets instead of sticks, and drummed standing up) is now Tea Partying. Maybe she's a philosophical Tea Partier. (It's also worth noting, if only barely, that the Velvet Underground used to play a hip Boston club called the Boston Tea Party).

9. Typographical Origins (no, it's not a Yes album, it just sounds like one).

10. Our old friend Dr. Seuss used to make sculptures of his fictional creatures. Some of them are now for sale on E-Bay.

11. Also on E-Bay: 1960s environmental absurdist Edward Abbey's sweet Cadillac.

12. A great quote from Barack Obama on meeting Bob Dylan at the White House.

13. Emily Gould on Eileen Myles at the Poetry Foundation.

14. The great Harold Pinter in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. Pinter sure could turn out a chilly look.

view /Nobel2010
Wednesday, October 6, 2010 09:55 pm
Levi Asher

1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.

2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.

3. Clay January, aka Lightning Rod, was one of my favorite voices here on Litkicks during our crazy message board phase. The Rodster is now posting commentaries -- sharp, as always -- on his own site, The Poet's Eye.

4. I didn't know that the film The Hurt Locker originated as a poem by author/poet Brian Turner. He reads the poem in this video, and also explains what the title means.

5. Ron Kolm tells us about a new book called The Ass's Tale by John Farris, apparently "a Rabelaisian story of a dog's search for his identity, told in the existential down-and-dirty vein of Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed and Chester Himes" by a veteran of the literary streets.

6. Jason Boog wrote an article for Believer Magazine, Bohemian Rhapsody (preview only available here), about a bunch of poets who weathered the Great Depression by forming a collective called the Raven Poetry Circle.

7. "Why Franzen’s Freedom, though? What would Obama have done if handed a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says instead?" From D. G. Myers' A Commonplace Blog.

8. Enigmatic young novelist Tao Lin has scored an impressive Time magazine cover parody at Seattle's The Stranger, as well as an interview at swanky Black Book, which ponders whether or not he may have Asperger's Syndrome. I've met him and I say he probably does -- and he's pretty good at milking it for all its worth.

9. I wasn't sure at first about Washington Post book critic Ron Charles's humorous new series of videos about books. I'm not sure why he has to play such a blatant (and grating) character. However, Charles is definitely hitting his stride with the third video (about e-books and the Booker Prize) . Really funny stuff, and a groundbreaking use of new media from an alleged newspaper critic.

10. I don't know about some of these classic poetry parodies that go around. The .DOC File of Alfred J. Prufrock has a couple of transcendent moments, but I'm still telling you, I was this close to not bothering to link it here. This close. But, I realized, it's not much worse than Christopher Buckley's now antique spin on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, titled Yowl, which has been getting pageviews on Litkicks for the past ten years. So I may as well link the Prufrock thing too. I also don't know if this Hamlet on Facebook parody is quite as funny as it should be either, but what the hell, there it is.

11. Matthew Landis, who has written for Litkicks about Jorge Luis Borges, Antonin Artaud and other subjects, is asking for help financing (or, kickstarting, as they call it in the social networking world) a new musical project.

12. Another single-sentence animation from the folks at Electric Literature, art by Alice Cohen, sentence by Joy Williams.

13. The Arcade Fire's The Wilderness Downtown web video asks you for location information, then uses map images from your hometown to illustrate the song.

14. Former Blondie guitar player Gary Lachman Valentine is heavily into Carl Jung.

15. Wind Up Guitar by Thurston Moore at the Whitney Museum in New York City.

16. For Moby Dick buffs: A young girl's diary of a whaling voyage.

17. Postmodernism and Led Zeppelin: Everything is a Remix. They do know their Zeppelin.

18. Writer, Jewcy editor and literary raconteur Jay Diamond has written a chapbook.

19. Lydia Davis explains why we need (and she provided) a new English-language translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

20. A new website devoted to lovable San Francisco latter-day Beat Poet Jack Micheline.

21. A bunch of commenters are trying to guess the next Nobel Prize for Literature over at a Words Without Borders comment thread. I'm in there, offering up Paul Auster (a longshot right now, but I bet he'll collect one someday) and explaining why I think Philip Roth won't win. Other guesses: Haruki Murakami, John Berger, Elias Khoury. Who are your picks?

22. Here's a video of a dinner conversation with Henry Miller in 1979, the year before he died (that's him, reaching for the gravy, in the image at the top of this page). One of the topics of conversation: whether or not Henry Miller will win the Nobel Prize. He didn't.

view /DinnerCompanions
Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:36 pm
Levi Asher

1. Sixty pianos have been placed around various New York City parks and plazas, providing a nice summer surprise. During the last five days I heard a soul ballad at Grand Army Plaza, Doo-wop in Washington Square, a klezmer melody at St. Mark's Place, and, at Fort Greene Park, an unusual performance of a classical piece by a young kid who was either using Schoenberg's twelve-note system or had his left hand in the wrong position. I also banged out some blues riffs of my own at Fort Greene Park before visiting the nearby Greenlight Bookstore. These pianos are part of a multi-city "work of art" called Play Me I'm Yours. I'm not sure exactly what it means to classify these pianos as an "artwork", but they sure are pleasing the people of New York City (I especially notice a lot of parent/child interaction at these pianos) and I hope they'll repeat it every summer.

2. "I do like a very quiet life," says W. S. Merwin, who has just been appointed the new U. S. Poet Laureate. What a boring choice. Well, I haven't felt a U. S. Poet Laureate since Donald Hall. The most interesting thing I know about W. S. Merwin is that he once got into a terrible battle with Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg's Tibetan guru over an episode of forced nakedness at a poetry party (this weird history is chronicled in a previous Litkicks article, When Hippies Battle: The Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975). Beyond this, I just see Merwin as a poet who wins a lot of poetry awards without (as far as I've ever known) personally touching many people. And I can't help think of a recent article by Anis Shivani that eviscerates David Lehman's annual poetry anthologies, and says something about our contemporary academic poetry scene as a whole, a scene more obsessed with status updates than Facebook.

3. Hail and Farewell: Jose Saramago

4. Images of Greystone, the New Jersey insane asylum where Allen Ginsberg's mother lived, now abandoned.

5. Beverly Cleary remembers her early struggling years as a student at Cal Berkeley and a child librarian.

6. Sam Tanenhaus visits the John Updike Archive (more about this here).

7. Joel Weishaus on Mysteriosos, the latest book of poetry by Michael McClure.

8. A new magazine bears the delightful title Kerouac's Dog. I know Kerouac was actually a cat person, but I like the name anyway.

9. Isabel Allende: "The Truth Shall Make You Free"

10. The origin of "kinda", and other etymological notes.

11. How Google Editions is working with bookstores to sell e-books.

12. W. H. Auden at the 92nd Street Y.

13. Small Beer launches Weightless Books.

14. Bill Ectric interviews David Amram.

15. A blog about letterheads.

view /StreetPiano
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 10:29 pm
Levi Asher

Herta who? The news from Stockholm left, as usual, a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is Herta Müller and why haven’t we heard more about her? As someone who has spent almost a decade working to bring the best new international literary work to America, I felt a particular frustration at those first reports: once again, Nobel coverage seemed to be descending into churlishness rather than an eagerness to share important international voices. Not that one can count on the Nobel Prize in Literature Committee to be anything but unpredictable in their choices, but still, wasn’t this the year that one of the well-loved waiters-in-the-wings -- Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, or, yes, even, Philip Roth -- might be rewarded? Couldn’t this year, at last, yield a global literary love fest? And, of perhaps even greatest frustration for an international literary activist, how had yet another great writer passed America by without leaving a deeper footprint at an earlier stage of their writing career, particularly a writer who clearly isn’t all that obscure?

First, to clear up any misconceptions: Herta Müller is not unknown. Far from it. Unlike say J.M.G. Le Clézio, last year’s Nobelist whose constant travel and self-exile to the wilds of Albuquerque kept him out of sight and out of mind for many members of the Parisian -- and global -- literati, Müller, who lives in the literary hotbed of Berlin, is a well-recognized and up-to-date member of the current German literary scene. As a rights agent friend in Frankfurt pointed out, Müller’s published 20 books, won practically every major literary award in her home country and is on this year’s shortlist for Germany’s equivalent of the National Book Award for her latest novel Atemschaukel (a title with hints of Paul Celan’s Atemwende.) Müller’s works were published here in the U.S. by University of Nebraska press and Northwestern’s Hydra line (two great wellsprings of literature in translation in the U.S.) and her Dublin Impac Award-winning novel, Land of the Green Plums was championed in hardcover by Metropolitan Books’ well-respected Sara Bershtel, one of the last standing publishers of foreign works employed by a major trade house. Finally, Müller’s novels have been translated by some of our best German translators, Philip Boehm and Michael Hofmann among them, a clear signal in its own right. Harold Bloom, per the Washington Post, may never have heard of Herta Müller, but she wasn’t an under-the-radar a choice. In fact, Michael Orthofer, literary translation’s own Scoop, even called this particular beauty contest in advance.

So why then such surprise at the choice? In the press onslaught of the last few days, the same old accusations have been bandied back and forth. Either America is too isolated, doesn’t translate enough literature and American readers are thus woefully ignorant (which can’t actually account for any surprise among Europeans) and/or the Swedes are insular elitists with a political agenda. It’s been 16 years since an American won (Toni Morrison in 1993); in the last 15 years all but one of the winners lived in Europe. The Nobel Prize Committee picks artists who remain obscure in the Anglophone world (Eyvind Johnson, Dario Fo, anyone?). Americans/Anglophones don’t get the rest of the world.

What else is new? Yet, there’s another frustration shining through the cracks of this inevitably cranky coverage. And it’s a frustration that is shared across international borders for it goes straight to the heart of the current global discussion over the health of literary publishing and literature itself. The problem many non-specialists (and here I count a large swath of publishers, press, booksellers, lovers of literature and non-Germanists etc) have with Herta Müller isn’t that she isn’t known. It’s that, at least until they’ve all had a chance to read her and perhaps discover differently, she’s not better loved. She’s critically acclaimed in Germany, but she’s not a bestseller. She’s topical, but it’s unclear whether her writing is all that accessible. (In one New York Times article, her own translator calls her work “dense.”) Internationally, she’s well-published. But in no country has she ever had that lucky break: a literary novel that succeeds commercially through passionate, widespread word of mouth. Perhaps that novel is still to come.

In other times, a lack of European or other public embrace might not prove so bothersome. Critical acclaim and commercial success have always been uneasy bedfellows, and rightfully so. One man’s brilliance is another man’s impenetrability. She adores Finnegans Wake, he’s lost. He loves Faulkner, she’s doesn’t get it. (Joyce, by the way, never won the Nobel. Faulkner did and it changed his life.) And though we all prefer to claim that great literature is universal, the reality is that accessibility of stories can be limited by cultural experience and occasionally by translation’s own limits, especially when it comes to language and voice. And anyway, part of the point of major prizes is to elevate the critically acclaimed to major commercial success, right?

But, c’mon, we’re also talking the Nobel Prize here (or so the refrain goes.) How hard can it be to find one acclaimed, superbly talented writer per year who touches a universal nerve, rendering their work accessible across borders? There were certainly plenty of such candidates on this year’s inevitable Nobel betting lists: Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, Haruki Murakami, Adonis, Alice Munro. It doesn’t need to be someone everyone has heard of, but please oh please make it a writer like Naguib Mahfouz or Wislawa Szymborska, the discovery of whose works has delighted millions of readers everywhere.

For, these are not ordinary times. Right now, literary fiction is caught in a particularly virulent crossfire on the battlefield known as publishing. With so much competition for the reader’s time and attention, literature (as opposed to say, commercial fiction) feels both endangered -- and ever more precious. And though it isn’t PC to say so, there’s nothing literature’s champions want more at the moment than a hero/heroine to push: an Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel García Márquez, J. M. Coetzee, or on the younger side, a Junot Diaz or another Bolaño. They want a writer that they can love, not just admire. For it’s that combination of love and admiration that fuels their own energy to keep up the buzz. That collective gasp you heard five years ago when the National Book Award nominees were all relative unknowns? That wasn’t the gasp of the unwashed (whoever they might be). That was a gasp of disappointment from the knowledgeable and the lovers of literature—and yes, corporate publicists and booksellers, not to mention librarians, bloggers, book critics, event programmers, and above all vocal readers who do the most to actively promote reading in this country—all those who knew that by turning a major literary award for excellence into an overt opportunity to push brand new voices, thereby giving the awards a distracting agenda, the NBA committee had made the enthusiasts’ job of spreading the word that much more difficult.

Our largest awards should be as agenda-free as possible. And though the political club is probably overused against the Nobel, the committee has been known to take their mandate to celebrate outstanding works that tend toward “the ideal direction” a bit literally. A tie to political realities, to themes of dispossession and exile as recent choices have had is not necessarily a bad thing. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked, this autumn’s 20th year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has made the selection of this particular Nobelist, a writer out of the Communist East, especially pointed. That’s a good thing. The hope for literature’s champions is that her novels will produce an emotional jolt equal to the work’s historical significance and linguistic merit.

To be perfectly clear (I can hear the wolves outside the door): Our major literary prizes shouldn’t be popularity contests any more than they should be political ones. And I’m personally looking forward to reading Atemschaukel when it’s translated (as it certainly will be). Word is this latest book might be one of Müller’s best. Based on interviews with the poet Oskar Pastior (who was imprisoned from 1945 to 1949) and other Gulag survivors, it’s a story of a young man, a member of the minority ethnic German community in Romania, who is thrown into the Russian Gulags at the end of World War II. It’s a book steeped in the devastating history of 20th century Europe. I’m also looking forward to learning much more about this major writer with roots in Communist Romania. By all accounts, her prose is lyrical, her attention to language intense, and her themes some of my favorites: displacement, exile, translation, memory, violence and power. And like the best of our literary heroes, Müller’s a born rebel. According to noted translator Anthea Bell, Müller had “the courage necessary to have been outspoken even before moving to the West in 1987, two years before the Wall came down and the whole system collapsed.”

In other words, I’m ready to get excited about a new discovery—and to fall in love. I hope all the readers of this column give Herta Müller a try and we all fall in love together. But there’s another political reality here and that’s if we don’t, it won’t be taken lightly. And we won’t be in any mood to spare the Nobel Prize Committee. The last thing the literary world needs right now is to be told to eat our spinach and whose politics we must admire. We also deserve, and have always deserved, pleasurable texts. And in this late stage of literature, the most eminent prize awarded in the literary world should be awarded to authors who help elevate the profile of literary fiction. Otherwise, the folks in Stockholm may be guilty of the worst sin that they can commit: the relegating of literature to irrelevance. I do hope they got it right this time. Literature may not be able to withstand many more disappointments.


Herta who? The Nobel news from Stockholm left, as usual, a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is Herta Muller and why haven’t we heard more about her? As someone who has spent almost a decade working to bring the best new international literary work to America, I felt a particular frustration at those first reports: once again, Nobel coverage seemed to be descending into churlishness rather than an eagerness to share important international voices.

view /HertaWho
Monday, October 12, 2009 05:49 pm
Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden
Dedi Felman

1. I've never read 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller, but I know a few people who recommend her work (Harold Bloom, meanwhile, is unimpressed). The Literary Saloon has more substantial coverage.

2. Herta Mueller writes about Romania during the painful years of the Nicolai Ceausecsu regime, and coincidentally I've been reading a impressive new novel about the same subject, Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici. You can find an excerpt from the introduction on the author's MySpace page.

3. Thurston Moore is starting a new publishing company, Ecstatic Peace Library. Maybe he'll win a Nobel Prize too, since there seem to be a lot of them going around right now.

4. A really impressive lineup of writers will be at the Miami International Book Fair this November: Orhan Pamuk, Richard Powers, Roxana Robinson, Dan Choan, Sherman Alexie, Fiona Maazel, David Hajdu, Tao Lin, Jonathan Lethem, Ralph Nader, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Lydia Davis, Susie Essman, Robert Olen Butler, Mary Gordon, Tom Hayden, Margaret Atwood, Jayne Anne Phillips, Po Bronson, Richard Belzer, Harold Evans, John Freeman, Al Gore, Isabella Rossellini, John Hodgman, Tracy Kidder, Sam Tanenhaus, Melvin Van Peebles and Iggy Pop (!). Not too shabby.

5. "N+1 is to thinking as a Renaissance Festival is to warfare." Not sure I agree with the generalization about N+1 but it's a funny line.

6. Norman Juster and Jules Feiffer are finally following up The Phantom Tollbooth with a new book, The Odious Ogre.

7. More children's book news: a new character named Lottie the Otter is showing up in a new pseudo-A. A. Milne Winnie the Pooh book. I find it hard to believe that Christopher Robin Milne would have ever had a stuffed animal named Lottie the Otter, so I'm not down with this.

8. Bill Ectric's been writing about social activist Stetson Kennedy for a while, and would like the world to know that a new version of Kennedy's The Klan Unmasked is finally out.

9. Thoreau and jigsaw puzzles.

10. Daniel Nester, LitKicks's old karaoke pal, is surfacing with some trenchant observations of today's literary scenes.

11. Tomorrow in New York City: Naked Lunch at 50!

12. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as a Broadway musical? I dunno about this ...

13. Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. The book cover makes it work.

14. David Small talks about his unusual visual memoir, Stitches.


Literary news and links, October 2009

view /QuickHitsOct2009
Friday, October 9, 2009 01:12 pm
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 20 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

I went to San Francisco in March 1998 to attend the Webby Awards. Literary Kicks was a nominee in the Print/Zines category. I was up against Salon (a well-financed new content venture), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (exciting stuff!), a compendium of electronic literature known as Labyrinth, and, finally, alt.culture (my friend Nathaniel Wice's site, hosted by Pathfinder).

It felt strange to be up against a site edited by my friend and hosted by the company I worked for, but Nathaniel and I both agreed that alt.culture didn't have a chance, and neither did Litkicks. Salon, a darling of the new media industry since its highly publicized introduction, was the clear choice to win.

I flew out to California to attend the awards ceremony at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, bringing the Enterzone crew, Christian and Briggs and Martha and Rich, as my guests. We showed up to the event in an ironic mode, enjoying the hyped-up red carpet atmosphere though we knew my site would lose, and feeling dubious about the crowd of fashionably dressed dot-commers that filled the auditorium. It wasn't until the Print/Zines category was presented and I saw an image of the Litkicks front page on the large theatre screen that I suddenly realized I wanted Litkicks to win.

This sudden epiphany that I wanted to win was quickly followed by the announcement of the winner: Salon. Dammit.

Of all the sites that won awards that night, the only one I even liked was "Bert Is Evil" a parody news site about Sesame Street that took the "Weird" category (and got the biggest applause of the night). Christian, Briggs, Martha, Rich and I then endured a lame after-show party where mimes costumed as digital fairies served chicken tikka masala on skewers and nobody talked to anybody they didn't show up with. I would have been more exuberant at the party myself, but I was mad about losing.

Nobody cared who won a Webby Award in 1998 anyway. Later that year got nominated for a Yahoo! Best Website award and actually won, and Dan Levy thanked me from the stage at Webster Hall. Nobody cared about that either. The whole hectic new media content craze that had fired up the web industry in 1996 and 1997 was now going through a lull. In the web's earliest years everybody was obsessed with pageviews and advertising, and the big companies were content sites like Yahoo, HotWired, Slate, Salon, CNet, NYTimes and (choke) Pathfinder. Now, the stock market was obsessed with electronic commerce, and the big companies were Amazon, CDNow and EBay. Even award-winning Salon, the most venture-capital-friendly site on the dot-com scene, was considered a minor venture next to the big e-commerce plays, as far as the investment community was concerned, The sudden lack of interest in content publishing was especially a shock in New York City, traditional home base of the advertising and media industries.

"Remember when everybody used to say 'content is king'?" I heard a clueless and laid-off young web worker pout over a Sambuca on the rocks at one of our Silicon Alley hangouts in Little Italy. "Now they say 'content is dead'". I don't remember anyone ever saying "content is king" either, but it was a fact that nobody cared who won the Webby in 1998 (and I'm not sure if anybody cares who wins it today either).

I spent the spring of 1998 doing my Notes From Underground final cut in Adobe Premiere, mastering the CD-Rom with Macromedia Director, designing a CD sleeve with Adobe Illustrator, and building an e-commerce site with so I could sell the movie online. At this point, I was definitely ignoring other parts of my life because of my obsession with the Dostoevsky project, and I don't think I was showing my best self either at work or at home.

Meanwhile, around this time I realized with disappointment that I had allowed my working relationship with a literary agent named William Clark to lapse. William Clark of the William Morris agency had earlier contacted me, and he liked the manuscript I sent for a novel called The Summer of the Mets.

I became William's client and he began sending the novel out. Waiting for an agent to sell a book is frustrating for any hopeful author, but I found the experience particularly bitter because I'd been through it once already, several years before, when an agent named Deborah Schneider had represented a different novel for me with no success. During those earlier years I clung tightly to the client-agent relationship, desperately hoping and believing the novel would sell. This time, I felt gripped by a cynicism so overbearing that I couldn't even enjoy talking to my agent over the phone. I found I was angry at William Clark even before he tried to sell my book.

I was torn: I wanted to sell a book with a major publisher, but I also could not relish putting myself up for the humiliating process aptly called "submission" once again. My working relationship with William Clark never really took off, though he was a perfectly nice guy and did his best to represent me. The first editors he sent the novel to all passed, and then he asked me about some revisions, and I never did them, and we eventually started forgetting to return each other's calls.

Maybe it's because Summer of the Mets is the story of a vulnerable person's struggle to assert himself in the world that I felt so skittish and defensive about the fate of the manuscript. It's a short novel about the awkward attempts of a friendless and extremely shy high school kid (who, during the course of the tale, meets a girl, loses the girl and watches a lot of baseball) to break past his limitations, confront his anxieties and make contact with others in the world. I guess it's the same story I've been writing, in one form or another, ever since.

I didn't want my deepest thoughts hanging around in anybody's slush pile anymore. Notes From Underground was going to be my next big project, and I decided at this point that I would create a company called Literary Kicks Publishing to produce and sell this movie myself, and possibly to publish books in the future too. It was only at this point that I finally registered the domain name "" for my main website, and began using it in place of "". It was really only at this point that I began to think about Literary Kicks as having any kind of business potential.

As I began to think about what Literary Kicks Publishing would be, I thought of two smart independent publishing figures in New York I could learn from. One was Bob Holman, who'd been an early figure in the slam poetry movement and also published books and CDs under the name Mouth Almighty.

Bob Holman was one of the most positive and gregarious people I'd ever met. He clearly lived the principles of the "spoken word" aesthetic, because he was always either talking or listening or prodding or wisecracking, and often his sentences actually rhymed. I ran into Bob often around St. Marks Poetry project or the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe or KGB in the East Village, and I appreciated that he always had something nice to say about Literary Kicks. What I could learn from Bob, I decided, was to go balls-out in promoting myself, because that was the way he approached everything he did.

Another well-known indie publisher around New York City during the late 90s was Sander Hicks, a charismatic young activist who created Soft Skull while working in a Manhattan Kinkos. Soft Skull's anarchy-flavored books of poetry, politics or prose looked more like pamphlets than actual books (but then, so did Howl by City Lights) and could often be found near the counter at independent bookstores.

What I could learn from Sander, I decided, was focus: he was intensely dedicated to the cause of independent publishing and worked very hard on everything he did. Sander also had a chip on his shoulder the size of Avenue A, and had a way of alienating people without meaning to that reminded me sometimes of myself. At this time in the late 1990s Soft Skull was small and healthy and growing; the company would face an enormous crisis in two years after Sander dared to publish a controversial biography of George W. Bush called Fortunate Son that would put him directly in Karl Rove's line of fire. Sander ended up yielding control of Soft Skull after the complex ordeal that ensued, but the spirit with which he built this company would remain long after his departure.

There are hedgehogs and there are foxes. As a publisher, Bob Holman was a fox and Sander Hicks was a hedgehog. I knew, as I got out my pads and pencils and sketched out my early plans for Literary Kicks Publishing, that I was also a hedgehog -- determined, single-minded, stubborn, and not a fox.

I was a hedgehog-- not because I wanted to be, but simply because that's who I was. I had a feeling most successful book publishers were foxes -- open-minded, curious, flexible. But I couldn't really change who I was. And I had a movie to put out.

I finally had the Notes From Underground package ready to go in August 1998. Meg and the kids and I celebrated with a family road trip to a Beat poetry festival in Cherry Valley, New York where poet/novelist Charley Plymell lived, and where Allen Ginsberg had kept a country farm. This was a great gathering of poets like Ray Bremser, Herschel Silverman, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman, along with friends from the Beat scene like Attila Gyenis, Bill Gargan, Bob Rosenthal, Bill Morgan, Peter Hale, Rani Singh, Raymond Foye, Laki Vazakas, Jeff Weinberg, Breath Cox and David Amram.

I'm not sure what my kids thought of Anne Waldman's poetry, but it was nice to get away from Queens for a few days. The thing they all remember most today about our road trip is that we passed through a town called Breakabean on the way. We all thought that was hilarious.

From the Webby Awards to Cherry Valley ... that was the width of my circle in the world of media as I got my resources together and plotted my move into indie publishing, a move that would amount to nothing in the end. But it would take a while to get there.


Chapter 20 of Levi Asher's Silicon Alley memoir. Spring/Summer 1998: LitKicks gets nominated for a Webby Award but is going nowhere fast ... Content is king vs. content is dead ... Creative frustrations ... Hedgehogs and foxes and indie publishing mentors.

view /WebbyValley
Thursday, June 4, 2009 12:56 am
Webby Awards nominee laminate, San Francisco 1998
Levi Asher