Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Laying of Odds on Murakami, Critics and the Nobel Prize

The announcement on Friday of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has led to much opining about the connections between literature and pop music. I'd like to discuss that intriguing subject on another occasion, but just for the moment I've been thinking more about the connection between literary stallions and bookmakers...

Haruki Murakami (pictured above) - the perennial bookies' favourite in the UK - failed yet again to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whatever the literary merits of this, there is an interesting linkage to be made between the betting on the Remain camp (favourite with the bookies while failing at the polls) in Brexit and Murakami constantly being the bookies' favourite while not winning.

As with Brexit, being the favourite leads to the impression that the bookmakers are making a judgement call, whereas in fact they are just reflecting the 'weight of money'. Which leads to the fascinating question: who is it that bets on winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature? At first sight, it seems a very odd mix of literature and betting.

Murakami being the year-in-year-out favourite (4-1, this year) represents not an assessment by any informed pundits, but presumably a desire by the millions of Murakami's fans in the West to have their reading tastes sanctioned by their author winning the ultimate accolade.

If Murakami did win, it then raises the question of whether the constant pressure of this 'weight of money' made an impact (conscious or unconscious) on the judges - so far it seems to have not the slightest impact.

Rather than reveal the tastes of the Nobel Committee however, Murakami constantly being favourite and yet not winning tells us a percentage of his fans 1. Like to have an online bet (I can't see them going to a high street bookies); 2. Have disposable wealth (We knew that already...); 3. Are not very streetwise (given that they keep on losing).

Surely this demonstrates the dangers of the ill-experienced wagering through sentiment rather than market insight? Well, you can look at it that way, but I would like to offer a different insight.

Literature and betting might appear at first to be two totally incongruous activities. Reading literature is a profoundly internalized, ultimately vague and lingering activity: you are never entirely sure how it affects your thought processes both now and into the future. Betting, by contrast, is entirely externalized, with a short thrill of uncertainty followed by complete clarity, win or lose. It seems to me to be entirely natural to wish to offset your internal literary musings with a punt on a bit of external reality.

The Nobel Prize indeed offers a potential opportunity for a flutter to those millions of people who have no interest in sport or the naming of royal babies. The Nobel Committee should perhaps be applauded for offering a gambling outlet for all those who fill red wine and book clubs up and down the country.

But even without betting on the big prizes, there is another means of externalizing your internal literary musings in a risk-laden endeavour: it's called 'criticism'. Whenever I put down my feelings on a subject and publish an article or upload a blog, I always feel like I am taking a risky punt: there's a certain mix of thrilling unease and anticipation as you wait to see what reaction your critique will garner. It's a highly unpredictable endeavour. Some of your bets will come romping home garlanded with praise; others will sink without trace or be the butt of ridicule and scorn.

I know a few people who are habitual (if not compulsive) gamblers, who can not get through a week without laying a bet. But I've rather come to recognize the same quality in myself, just transferred to a compulsive need to keep sending into the world little essays of criticism. Many people erroneously think I indulge in journalism, talks and blogs for the fabulous riches and worldwide fame they afford, but I assure you that it is the compulsive intellectual gambler inside me that whips me onward.

Once, back in my Cambridge days, my English supervisor - like me, a devotee of Nietzsche - gave me a gem of wisdom I've never forgotten: 'all great essays take risks'. Many people think that to write critically on a subject involves rational analysis and a summation of what has gone before. But what's truly essential is the ability to think creatively and to offer new insight.

If criticism does not challenge consensus, then it is pointless. Great criticism takes risks and flies in the face of convention. When it succeeds it manages to build a new consensus around its new tracks of interpretation.

The Nobel Prize is in many ways the ultimate statement of critical appreciation. Yet, paradoxically, when it merely represents a 'critical consensus' on a writer, it ceases to function as 'criticism'. In this sense, although I do not necessarily agree with the appraisal of Bob Dylan, at least the Nobel Committee are actually functioning in a critical capacity by advancing a new appreciation of Dylan's work. They have taken a punt, even as they have frustrated the bets of the legions of Murakami fans.

Anyone who is a critic is at heart a gambler. When Natsume Soseki published in 1907 his revolutionary 'Theory of Literature', he was criticized in some quarters for offering a profoundly scientific analysis of literature. But literature is not science came the critique. That's true, Soseki responded, literature is not science, but that's not to say literary criticism can't be scientific.

Soseki too was gambling big time on his radical criticism, but despite the fact that 'logic', 'emotion' and 'will' form the cornerstone of all his cultural analysis, he curiously neglected to see how 'wilfulness' - the desire to assert oneself, embrace danger and challenge convention - is just as essential a part of being a critic as 'rationality'.

So, in short, I have every sympathy for the Harukists laying their bets on the Nobel Prize. Because although literature and gambling might seem far apart ('The Nobel Prize is not a horse race', Murakami himself is supposed to have sniffily remarked), literary criticism and gambling are actually profoundly connected.

When it comes to your intellectual life at least, I think you should live dangerously and bet the house. Over the coming weeks, I'll be advancing new literary theories to challenge the consensus. It will be interesting to see whether my horses get over the line first or I am left seriously out of pocket...

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