October 9, 2017
Kazuo Ishiguro wins the Nobel — good news for Ishiguro fans, bad news for Atwood fans, complicated news for Ursula Le Guin
by Susan Rella
The world has a new Nobel laureate in literature. Some people are excited, some people are pissed, and some people just went to see The Book of Mormon.
On Thursday, Japanese-born Briton Kazuo Ishiguro took home the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro is the author of seven novels, four screenplays, a handful of short stories, and lyrics to a surprising number of jazz songs. Among his novels are two highly acclaimed, fantastic works that people basically only remember as movies.
Ishiguro was definitely a long shot for the prize. And as Katie O’Mallley reported Friday in ELLE UK, Ishiguro was himself among those surprised that Margaret Atwood didn’t walk away with the prize, especially given the fact that only fourteen previous literary Nobelists been female, out of 109. Atwood was a favorite to win this year: Ladbrokes, the British gambling service that sets yearly odds on Nobel winners, was giving her 7:2 odds, as Bill Chappell writes at NPR (Ishiguro didn’t crack the top three). The author didn’t seem too upset herself; she was tweeting Thursday night about enjoying The Book of Mormon in London (despite being slightly taken aback by the language).
Or course, Margaret Atwood isn’t the only writer whose fans will be eating victory cake as consolation cake this week. Japan’s Haruki Murakami was also heavily favored this year, with 5:1 Ladbrokes odds. Sad news for the two hundred “Harukists” who’d gathered at a Tokyo shrine Wednesday evening to await announcement, as Alice Vincent reports in The Telegraph.
Other favorites to win this year included dissident Kenyan novelist (and proud Melville House papa) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (a Ladbrokes 4:1) and perennial Nobel also-ran Philip Roth.
In Wired, Nicole Kobie writes that some have scoffed at Ishiguro’s win, associating him with “genre writing,” since each of his two most recent books, Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, has had a definite genre bent — sci-fi and fantasy, respectively. There is strange, unspoken genre hierarchy in the literary world, and, as we wrote a few times last week, it’s a problem. Kobie also recalls that Ishiguro caught flak when his last book came out for asking in an interview with Alexandra Alter, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to call this fantasy?”
A short while later, Ishiguro’s “fantasy” remark got clapped back by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin. “It appears,” she responded in an essay, “that the author takes the word for an insult.” Le Guin’s response championed fantasy writing, in which genre it included Beowulf and Alice in Wonderland, and took some deep digs at at The Buried Giant, which “was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”
But there’s really only one thing to be upset about in this story: the opportunity it affords us to remember that Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day (winner of the 1989 Booker Prize) in just four goddamn weeks. Freehand. While he was thirty-two years old. After being inspired by a Tom Waits song.
So, in conclusion, congratulations, Kazuo Ishiguro. And now go to hell, while the rest of us eat froyo and re-read our high school AP English Lit essays.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.