To a popular audience, the Nobel Prize in Literature comes perhaps second only to the Peace Prize itself in a ranking of prestige bestowed by the awards. Hence, last week’s decision by the Nobel Committee to award the Literature accolade to the Chinese author Mo Yan (Guan Moye) is a momentous event. Mo Yan will take his place as one of the few non-Europeans to receive this well-deserved honor. For this, he merits congratulation. His work imparts a mastery of hallucinatory realism that brings Chinese folklore and history to life, qualities for which he has won critical acclaim at home and abroad. In an age when such praise remains still largely reserved for Western work and is rarely divorced from political and social commentary, we hope that this award will be a sign of the Nobel Committee’s intent to recognize authors on the merits of their work, regardless of their politics or locale.
Others, clearly, do not agree. Chinese artist and prominent dissident activist Ai Weiwei said that awarding the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan is an “insult to humanity and to literature,” a remark presumably made in reference to the latter’s alleged ties to China’s authoritarian regime. While this criticism of a laureate’s political behavior and affiliations may be valid, the denouncement of Mo Yan’s award is not. When establishing the Nobel Prize in Literature, Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the prize should recognize any author who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The ideal direction in turn for judging art is not a political one, but instead a decision based on aesthetic and technical grounds. As much as possible, politics should be divorced from the recognition of good literature.
Furthermore, although he was long a member of the People’s Liberation Army’s artistic section, Mo Yan is by no means a voice of the state. Ai Weiwei declared that Mo Yan is an artist who “will always stand on the side of power,” but in the wake of receiving this prize, Mo Yan has said that he hopes that the Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiabao will “gain freedom as early as possible.”
The greater problem behind awarding the Literature Prize to Mo Yan lies in the situation of this laureate in a tradition of Nobel awards that have, frankly, become overly politicized. As much as Mo Yan may have received his award because the judging committee truly considered his creative talent alone, the same generally cannot be said of all Nobel awards, particularly the Peace Prize, which often recognizes rights activists around the world. While this itself may be an honorable endeavor, it is difficult generally to think of the Nobel Prizes as apolitical, and this year’s Literature Prize will likely prove no exception to this common refrain.
Great writing forces us to be empathetic. But great writing is best sought by reserving acclaim for aesthetic and technical skill, not political messaging. In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan, the Nobel Committee has recognized a deserving artist and has given the world a chance to engage closely with nuanced and intricate tales that knit together Chinese history with personal experience. We hope that future prizes will similarly focus on artistic talent and highlight more unique perspectives from all over the world.