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The politics of the Nobel Prize for literature

11 October 2012

2:34 PM

11 October 2012

2:34 PM

The Nobel committee have delivered their verdict on the literature prize: Mo Yan is new laureate. Over at the books blog, I explain why this is an important decision politically. Yan is the first Chinese citizen to win the award, a reminder that the country’s culture influence is growing together with its political and economic power. In that sense, the award has recognised that we are living in a new age.

Yan’s books have been banned from time-to-time by the Chinese authorities, but he is accused by many of being too close to the party line. Several human rights activists are appalled that he has won the prize. However, others say that he is subtly subversive in a society that limits freedom of expression, which brings to mind books like The Master and Margarita. Yan argues that censorship aids creativity by forcing the writer to explore his imagination in order to recast reality. This view is unlikely to endear him to free speech purists or indeed more openly dissident writers, but it is plausible.

The Nobel committee’s decision has prompted old questions about what political stances it has and has not adopted in the past. These questions are already in the minds of many given the recent publication of Salman Rushdie’s fatwa memoir, Joseph Anton. The Nobel organisers were reputed to have said in 1997 that a Rushdie victory would be ‘too predictable, too popular’. 15 years later, we’re still waiting for this predictable outcome.

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