April 22, 2012

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Rowling, Tolkien, Transtromer and Stewart -- What Is Great And What Is Not

A number of incidents coincided this week that set me to thinking.

First, my daughter won Best In Show at a juried art show at the college she attends. She’s 4.0 psych major with an art minor, though the piece above wasn’t created as a class assignment – it was a whimsical expression of a thought or two.

Second, Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”. (Now, I had to do a little research here and I’ll pass on a tiny slice of what I found out: an 81 year-old Swedish poet, he has been nominated for the Nobel every year since 1993. A sample of his work (obviously translated into English):

Landscape with Suns

The sun emerges from behind the house
stands in the middle of the street
and breathes on us
with its red wind.
Innsbruck I must leave you.
But tomorrow
there will be a glowing sun
in the gray, half-dead forest
where we must work and live.

Last of all, I read an article in which the author reveals a VERY little known secret: JRR Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961 by Oxford don, CS Lewis. The Nobel Committee turned him down because Tolkien, “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.”

Really? Who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature? Do you know? Did I know without searching high and low? Nope. (In case you were wondering, it was Ivo Andri’c for “the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”. Can you name a SINGLE work by Andri’c? Here are a few to check out: The Bridge on the Drina (one copy in HCL) and The Damned Yard and Other Stories (three copies in HCL).)

By contrast, the loser of that year’s Nobel Prize (dismissed summarily without consideration because his storytelling didn’t measure up to anything approaching the highest quality exhibited by Andri’c’s work) has 66 entries in the HCL, in every format possible in the 21st Century and is read, quoted and assigned not merely in the US and in other English speaking countries but has been translated and sold worldwide in “at least 38 other languages” including Chinese, Braille and (ironically), Swedish.

While “an American knowing anything about REAL literature” is probably an oxymoron to millions of the world’s literati, the rest of the planet can hardly be accused en masse of illiteracy and they would possibly scoff at the accusation of not “measuring up to storytelling of the highest quality”.

Are the HARRY POTTER books great literature? I don’t know. No one has said. Clearly THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not, at least according to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is my daughter’s art prize worthy? (I DO have a drawing of one of her cats licking its paw in my collection in my office, so clearly my answer is, “Yes!”)

Discussing her win on the way home from the reception, my wife, daughter and I wondered if the painting in question had changed at all from the day she matted it for entry in the show to the afternoon its prize-winning status had been announced for all the world to hear.

We had to answer that question with a resounding, “No!”

Its innate features had NOT changed. LORD OF THE RINGS had not changed from the moment it was published to the moment it was dismissed as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The work of Tomas Tranströmer had not changed one iota from the days he scribbled his first poems to the day he stepped up to accept the Nobel Medal and its accompanying prize. The work of JK Rowling had not changed from the moment she wrote the first words on a napkin in a train station to the moment she became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2000 and if there is a Damehood in her future that will not change her work, either.

Work is great no matter what it is awarded. The same might be said of crappy writing as well, but I certainly won’t say it here because I’ve said enough already.

Have anything to add?


Jeff said...

Harry Potter is in very select company, which includes the Narnia Chronicles. But Lord of the Rings is in a class by itself.

GuyStewart said...

THAT is for certain! Love those books. My daughter loves the books. My son and wife love the movies. BTW -- you are held up in our prayers.