Better Than Bob Dylan, But Not as Good as Philip Roth – Kazuo Ishiguro and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Compared to other acclaimed novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro is a new kid on the literary block. And he just swiped the Nobel Prize from his more experienced peers. Unfortunately, the main reason he was able to do so is because he writes easier books.

Literary award culture is far more populist than it used to be. Before the Nobel Committee gave the nod to Ishiguro, they told Bob Dylan, to his surprise, that he was a poet. Last year, the National Book Award pleased the “woke” literary intelligentsia by giving their award to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose premise rests upon the idea that there is a literal subterranean train system that takes slaves to the north.

Other novelists could be thrown into the ring alongside Ishiguro and everyone could bicker about who deserves different prizes, but it’s worth comparing Ishiguro’s work with other great living novelists, such as Philip Roth, who has been writing since the early 1960s, and Don DeLillo, who began publishing novels in 1971. Ishiguro’s first novel appeared more than a decade later than DeLillo’s.

Compare the following passages:

DeLillo, in his epic novel, Underworld, wrote: “I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”

Philip Roth, another great writer, who is the only living American to have had his works collected by the Library of America, wrote in his novel, The Dying Animal: “You tasted it. Isn’t that enough? Of what do you ever get more than a taste? That’s all we’re given in life, that’s all we’re given of life. A taste. There is no more.”

These two writers write deeply without sentimentality and prove the old Ernest Hemingway adage, “Writing is easy, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Ishiguro takes a different approach with his writing. He writes pithy, Instagram-quote-like books with characters who are so caught up in past conflicts, they cannot deal with the present. Consider these lines from Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go: “Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.”

The disparity is stunning. Roth and DeLillo bare hard truths as they grapple with confused desires and the temporality of human life. Ishiguro wrote something trite about memory.

But it is precisely this triteness that makes Ishiguro’s work popular (and ripe for movie adaptations). The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both have full entries on Sparknotes for high school freshmen who are too lazy to crack the covers of either novel. Ishiguro’s novels are also widely assigned in high schools. But that doesn’t mean he should receive the highest honor in the literary world.

And though the statistic that one-third of high schoolers will never read another book after graduation has been called into question, the notion raises concern. If this is true, people outside of universities and people who do not regularly read for pleasure are only rarely likely to encounter the works of Roth or DeLillo, but by the time they turn 18, they have probably already read (or at least been assigned to read) something by Ishiguro.

Evidently, after the Nobel Committee took so much heat from novelists and poets for giving the award to Bob Dylan last year, they must have decided to make this year’s recipient a safe novelist who everyone has read and enjoyed.

In his response after receiving the award, Ishiguro said: “I’ll be deeply moved if I could in some way be part of some sort of climate this year in contributing to some sort of positive atmosphere at a very uncertain time.” And though the climate he is talking about is a political and social one, he should be more worried about the potential harm that his award has inflicted upon a literary community already under siege from online culture and a declining number of readers.

It is an uncertain time for literature. Nevertheless, the Nobel Prize Committee should not have chosen a popular novelist rather than one, like Roth or DeLillo, whose work is perhaps more challenging, but also more deserving—and enduring.

Image: Penguin/Random House

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