Raising Eyebrows at Herta Mueller's Nobel Prize

The Academy awards the literary prize to a darkhorse, continuing its tradition of favoring European writers

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Upsetting a pack of writers rumored to include American lions Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, a German-Romanian author won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Herta Mueller has written poetry, essays and novels about life under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The announcement comes as a surprise to many who expected the Swedish Academy to step outside of its custom of awarding the prize to Europeans. The prize has often been criticized for elevating politically fashionable writers, and missing such indisputable giants as Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce. These criticisms heated up last year when the head of the Academy suggested that Americans seldom won because their concerns were too parochial.

What are they saying about Mueller? Many praise her bravery for opposing a totalitarian regime, but the award is bringing out complaints about her relative obscurity, and the tendency to award the prize for politics as much as artistic merit.

  • A Quirky, Perhaps Predictable Choice, says M.A. Orthofer at Literary Saloon. Orthofer predicted Mueller's win yesterday because she was exactly the kind of person she wouldn't select. Orthofer also noted reasons that the Swedish Academy would lover her: "Bicultural/ethnic minority background (German in Romania -- a pretty exotic/unusual one, at least from some foreign perspectives) -- not a literary reason, but nationality and language always seem to matter...Anti-totalitarian writing -- and how: much of her writing deals with life under Ceauşescu, in horrific detail...Writes both poetry and prose."
  • Another Surprise for Americans, writes Lev Grossman at Time. "In the past decade, about half of the Nobel laureates in literature have been writers of whom few readers in the U.S., academics and literary journalists included, had or have any real awareness. What Americans may not realize is that Müller's selection isn't much less surprising in Germany...Almost no one considered her a figure of global literary eminence...If the past is any guide, the Nobel won't make Müller a household name in America -- it certainly hasn't done much for Elfriede Jelinek (who won in 2004) or Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008). That may simply be because there is little in the lives of most Americans that resonates with what Müller has gone through."
  • Good Thing Obama Didn't Stump for an American, says Alex Balk at the Awl. Balk teases the little-known names of other winners, "such recent notables as JMG Le Clézio and Gao Xingjian! I guess it's a good thing that President Obama didn't put his prestige on the line to campaign for Philip Roth."
  • Putting Politics Above Art, says Frank Wilson at Books Inq. " She may be a wonderful writer. I also think it is great to celebrate the collapse of communism. But it is no way to choose the winner of a literary prize."
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