October 13, 2006

Insulting Literature

Filed under: books, criticism, culture, politics — ted @ 5:06 pm

Today, the Times and the Guardian both responded to yesterday’s announcement of Orhan Pamuk’s winning the Nobel Prize with insightful articles on the political nature of his novels and his literary excellence. I’m getting pretty fired up about this at the moment, so this will be a longer post. But I think it’s important, and there’s a lot to be said.

I’m no expert on Pamuk: I’ve only read one of his novels (Snow), and I have only a layman’s understanding of Turkish culture and politics — but I do know a thing or two about literature, and I sense that I have some degree of insight at the moment. Let’s strike while the iron is hot.

There are plenty of people in Turkey who are very upset with the Nobel Foundation’s ruling, and have taken the opportunity to make themselves look foolish to a worldwide audience, just as they did last year when they attempted to have Pamuk jailed on grounds of “insulting Turkishness” (and then again this year, in response to novelist Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul.) Turkey is an emerging country, and its conflicted national identity is central to Snow and, as is made clear in all of these news articles, to Pamuk’s larger literature. This tension is a terrific breeding ground for great literature, and Pamuk has written about emerging Turkishness with astounding success. So the fact that there is an opposing, traditional nationalist voice (see the quote from one Kemal Kerincsiz in the article, in which he speculates that Pamuk was given the prize because he “belittled our national values”) in this narrative just adds an extra layer to Pamuk’s work. The tension, which is present in the literature, is then escalated by its appearance in the literature and the responses to its portrayal. It’s a lovely spiral.

When this type of political and cultural frenzy surrounds a work of art, in can be very distracting, but we should keep a few things in mind. Even when literature is decidedly political (and Pamuk’s is) this does not mean that we should interpret it through the lens of politics. Pamuk is not making political statements in the same way that polticians, journalists, and protestors do: politics is only a small aspect of any work of literature, no matter how obviously political it is, and attempting to bend its “message” or “intention” to banal political talking points necessarily reduces and belittles it. To do so is very tempting, especially when discussing a predominantly Muslim country in an English-language daily newspaper. The Guardian and the Times should be commended, in my opinion, for explaining the political situation, and using it to draw readers’ attention to great works of literature. (Particularly commendable is this reflection in the Times, which analyzes Pamuk’s literary style and his ability to convey the conflicting identity of modern Turkishness.)

Even better is this article from the Times: Turkish Writer Wins Nobel Prize in Literature. It insightfully explains the larger cultural and political situation of Pamuk’s novels, and allows the author to himself respond to a criticism which must be particularly sensitive:

The Swedish Academy never offers nonliterary reasons for its choices and presents itself as uninfluenced by politics. But last year’s winner, the British playwright Harold Pinter, is a prominent critic of the British and American governments, and there were political implications again in the choice of Mr. Pamuk.

“You’re beginning to notice a certain sensitivity to trends — they are giving the prize as a symbolic statement for one thing or another,” Arne Ruth, former editor in chief of the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, said in an interview. He said Mr. Pamuk “is a symbol of the relationship between Europe and Turkey, and they couldn’t have overlooked this when they made their choice.”

In an interview in New York, where he is spending a semester teaching at Columbia University, Mr. Pamuk said he saw the prize as a recognition of his work rather than a statement about his beliefs. “I think less than people think I do about politics,” he said. “I care about writing. I am essentially a literary man who has fallen into a political situation.”

Pamuk has wisely avoided responding directly to this criticism, instead consitently pointing people back to his literature, realizing that any statements he makes at this point will be overscrutinized and misconstrued. When I heard him interviewd on NPR yesterday, he actually interupted the host’s attempt to ask him about last year’s criminal trial, insisting that he be allowed to speak about his country and his literature instead.

This is the view taken by the aforementioned Elif Shafak, who is quoted in another excellent Guardian article thusly:

“It’s tragic really”, said Elif Shafak, another novelist brought to book under Article 301 last month. “This is a huge honour both for Pamuk and the country, and yet so many people are so politicised they forget about literature entirely.”

Hopefully, Pamuk’s winning the Nobel Prize will lead modern readers to his novels, and allow their conception of Turkey — and the modern world in general — to be complicated and enriched.


1 Comment »

  1. […] much discussion about the politics that went into this choice by the Nobel Foundation. As blogger edwardhenry notes: “Turkey is an emerging country, and its conflicted national identity is central to […]

    Pingback by Passing the Word Around » In the thick of the October literary prize season: Nobel Prize, Man Booker awarded; National Book Award, Giller, & GG nominees announced — October 19, 2007 @ 12:44 pm

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