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Still No Nobel?

They’ve announced. The Swedish Academy has undertaken its top secret selection process and offered its verdict: the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature will not go to Murakami Haruki. The Swedish Academy added two Japanese physicists and a Japanese chemist to the hall of Nobel Laureates in a two-day span, but Murakami couldn’t pull off the hat trick.

For the past three years, Murakami has been near the top of the odds list for the prize at many bookmakers. Murakami’s coming out party happened in 2006. Ladbrokes in London did not offer odds for Murakami to win the prize in 2005, but in 2006 he opened at 33/1 and closed at 9/1. In 2007, he opened at 10/1, closing at 5/1. The odds aren’t always accurate — Ladbrokes was giving odds of 50/1 on Doris Lessing when she won in 2007, and even popular favorite and eventual winner Orhan Pamuk’s odds were 7/1 in 2006 — but they are an interesting way of examining how Murakami is perceived. This year, his odds opened at 10/1 and closed at 7/1.

Something happened between 2005 and 2006 to put Murakami on the radar for the Nobel. In fact, it was a confluence of events. In the spring of 2006, the Japan Foundation made a major public relations push, gathering over a dozen translators to attend the “International Symposium and Workshop: A Wild Haruki Chase.” In his introduction to a compilation of essays from participants, American translator Jay Rubin noted that the conference was, to a certain extent, “the brainchild of a semi-governmental organization designed to solidify a Japanese author’s claim on the Nobel Prize” (Rubin 9). The foundation held lectures and workshops in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Kobe on a wide range of topics such as film adaptation, translation, and book jacket design.

While this may have influenced the bookmakers, Murakami also won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in September 2006 for Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a broad selection of stories from several points in the writer’s career.

But in the end the Academy cut off Murakami’s sprint towards the finish in 2006, awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Orhan Pamuk, a perhaps more politically interesting selection. Murakami’s prize-and-PR cycle continued apace, notably including his receipt of the Franz Kafka Prize in October 2006 (establishing a connection with other Kafka Prize winners who went on to take the Nobel such as Harold Pinter and Elfriede Jelinek), but the Academy’s 2007 pick of Doris Lessing didn’t exactly help the Murakami momentum (accidental congratulation from one Kobe Library notwithstanding). And now the 2008 prize has gone to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

Murakami himself, of course, is still writing and still (in the) running. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the 2008 English translation of his memoir about running and writing, Murakami rambles sincerely about his intention to avoid the burnout that some writers experience:

Some writers who in their youth wrote wonderful, beautiful, powerful works find that when they reach a certain age exhaustion suddenly takes over. …

If possible, I’d like to avoid that kind of literary burnout. My idea of literature is something more spontaneous, more cohesive, something with a kind of natural, positive vitality. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

Needless to say, someday you’re going to lose. Over time the body inevitably deteriorates. Sooner or later, it’s defeated and disappears. When the body disintegrates, the spirit also (most likely) is gone too. I’m well aware of that. However, I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist. (98-99)

Clearly Murakami is determined to maintain commitment to his artistic vision and continue writing as long as he can. Given the growing international interest in his work and his substantial backlog of yet-to-be-translated fiction and nonfiction, he’s obviously not out of the race yet.

It’s just a shame he couldn’t win in 2008 — it is the year of the Rat, after all.

October 10, 2008

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at

54 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    Doesn’t Murakami still seem “too young” for this? Also, apparently the Nobel guys hate “postmodernism” but maybe they just mean it in a very specific Pynchon kind of way that wouldn’t necessarily disqualify Murakami.

    My other worry is that Murakami’s stuff is incredibly pop compared to Oe or Kawabata.

  2. Aceface Says:

    I did a program on Oe when he got the prize back in 1994.Back then,Oe was very critical of Murakami but nowadays he changed the attitude probably because of oversea popularity of Murakami.

    I still don’t get why he is so popular both among literari and orbidanry book lover.

  3. Daniel Says:

    He’s nearly 60. Is that too young? Pamuk is three years younger than him, although from what I understand, he’s less pop than Murakami. Or do you mean to say that his writing is “too young”?

    Funny, Murakami’s been getting the too young, too pop thing his whole career – when he won the Gunzo that’s basically all that the judges had to say about him (He was 29 at the time) although I think the judges are generally pretty grumbly about the whole process (Ishihara Shintaro: “Why is this girl kicking this back!?”, so perhaps it isn’t unique to Murakami.

  4. Daniel Says:

    I realize that Ishihara does the Akutagawa and not the Gunzo, but they’re all pretty grumbly, Ishihara being the best example and that link being pretty funny.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    “My other worry is that Murakami’s stuff is incredibly pop compared to Oe or Kawabata.”

    Great, I was afraid that I was the only one thinking this. While there are some exceptions (like his non-fiction on Aum), it seems to me that Murakami is almost an archetypal “pop author”. One of the critical points that some have been using to separate “pure” and “pop” literature in Japan lately is “character” (used in the otaku sense, “character goods”). Are characters rooted in a realistic social setting? Do they experience meaningful change that intertwines with the themes of the work? Or are they simply a series of marketable stereotypes / images that readers are buying – like picking up a Rolex or CanCam or something? I`m afraid that Murakami may be selling “characters” not writing Nobel quality literature.

    Also evident is the aesthetic similarity between Murakami`s fiction and some anime / manga. On this level, I think that most of his stuff is quite a bit less insightful and less brave and honest than something like Evangelion.

    That brings me to the point that Aceface raised – Murakami`s popularity. I think that the guys want to be him (ie. his protagonist, almost unchaging from piece to piece) and the ladies want to be with him. Is the mizu-wari sipping, Casablanca quoting, jazz listening character (and idealized vision of himself) that dominates Murakami`s fiction really that different than a marketable cookie-cutter character like Mori Hiroshi`s nerdy professor turned detective or Kyogoku Natsuhiko`s used book store owner mystic turned detective?

    My fear with Murakami is that people outside Japan are exaggerating his insights as a cultural critic (yes, the bakery attack was brilliant, but did we need 800 pages of it?) and that people in Japan are either simply consuming his characters or getting behind him as a likely winner (the same reason why people don`t watch Oshii Mamoru`s movies but love it when he goes to Cannes).

    I read Murakami with relish, but I often can`t get over the feeling that I am reading a slick consumer product.

    Also, I don`t think that the Nobel crew fear the postmodern – Pamuk`s “White Castle” is almost academic pomo made literature. Umberto Eco (deliciously postmodern at times) keeps being discussed as well and in my estimation, he is far, far, far more worthy than Murakami.

  6. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I am basically with M-Bone on this one. I enjoy Murakami’s books but they have never really whacked me in the gut the way they do so many others, it seems.

    I don’t know about the dismissal of him as “pop”. Especially overseas he’s a victim of his own success–as the only living Japanese author many readers are familiar with, he can’t write a sentence without it being scrutinized in light of whatever popular opinion currently says about Japan. Now that Japan is superflat and Cool and whatever, that’s the light Murakami’s work will inevitably be seen in.

    (Arguing about his work’s literary merit is beside the point, of course. We’re talking about the Nobel Prize here. There is very little connection to literary merit beside a plywood moose outside the Academy saying “You must be this beloved by critics to get on the short list.”)

  7. Daniel Says:

    “Also evident is the aesthetic similarity between Murakami`s fiction and some anime / manga.”

    What exactly are you watching/reading?

    “Is the mizu-wari sipping, Casablanca quoting, jazz listening character (and idealized vision of himself) that dominates Murakami`s fiction really that different than a marketable cookie-cutter character like Mori Hiroshi`s nerdy professor turned detective or Kyogoku Natsuhiko`s used book store owner mystic turned detective?”

    That’s why more needs to be translated. His range is completely disguised by the way he’s been translated and marketed abroad. Outside of the Rat series and Hard-boiled Wonderland, he’s a different writer. Try reading Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round. That’s where he first kind of steps away from his narrator-persona for a while. If that collection was published in full in English just as it was in Japanese, I think he’d be seen differently.

    Oe has written in characters as did Kawabata. They’re just different, that’s all. Just because he’s easy to read, doesn’t mean it isn’t serious stuff.

  8. Aceface Says:

    I attended the Murakami symposium held in Todai two years ago since I know two of the three organizers and had occasion to talk to many Murakami translators coming from different part of the world.
    Many of them simply love Murakami for who he is,yet some of them love him for what he is,which is the only Japanese writer whose name is known to the publisher in their home country.

    To me Murakami Haruki:Japan’s answer to Irvine Welsh.

    But then again,’s Nobel odds list has Paul Auster on the list.So you never know.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    To me Murakami Haruki:Japan’s answer to Irvine Welsh.

    I have zero idea why you would say this. I don’t see anything similar at all.

    The pop issue:

    I feel like his heavy use of pop iconography as atmosphere/environment is pretty smart and also very accurate for describing post-’70s Japan consumerism-as-society. My problem is that he’s not so far from the straight up upper middle class consumerist snobbery of Tanaka Yasuo. A lot of those references are unconscious attempts to prove taste, rather than any meta narrative about the Japanese tendency to treat Western arts, culture, and literature as hollow collector fetish with no real examination of its internal qualities.

    Compare Murakami’s pop references to Pynchon, for example. Murakami’s are always “knowable” enough to become consumer guide. He is always part-teacher.

    There are very “deep” “literary” parts of Murakami’s books, and I especially like all the WWII stuff in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But Murakami has always been “oshare” for a reason. He has used the privileges of his upbringing and wife’s wealth to write from inside a consumer world in more depth than that of everyday Japanese and then exploits that differential to sell books (how many of you had the money to spend six years in college and open a jazz bar at age 20?). Maybe I missed the book where he deconstructs his own methods, but I can’t take him seriously until he applies his “dark heart of Japanese society” theory to his own success.

  10. Mulboyne Says:

    I’d only like to put in a largely tangential word about how to read a bookmaker’s odds. The “favourite” is only indicated if people are laying down serious cash each way. There is no serious betting on the Nobel prize for literature so those Murakami odds are irrelevant.

    Japanese bettors do sometimes lay out on “national champions” and, if there is no-one betting the other way, they will be favourite simply because the bookmaker can’t lay off his risk and doesn’t want to take any more. However, when Japanese bettors went crazy to put money on Deep Impact for the 2006 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – one punter put a 4.5 million bet on the horse to win with the Paris Tote which was the largest trackside bet they’d ever taken – they were balanced by bettors going the other way which kept the odds on the horse long enough to draw in a record number of Japanese bets.

    Ladbrokes sets odds for the Nobel prize the same way they do for snow at Christmas: long enough to attract non-bettors to have a first flutter but not too long to expose them to risk.

  11. A Bia perdeu a chance de ter lido um Prêmio Nobel! « Caminho Dourado Says:

    […] Bia perdeu a chance de ter lido um Prêmio Nobel! 10 10 2008 Vocês sabiam que Haruki Murakami super está concorrendo ao Prêmio Nobel de literatura já faz um tempo? Eu não sabia! Amo Murakami de paixão. Ainda não li o último lançado no Brasil mas devo ler em […]

  12. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    If Murakami were really attempting to prove his taste, don’t you think he’d keep his references up to date? Last book of his I read (After Dark) still had a jazz bar in it if I recall correctly, but who goes to jazz bars any more? Oyaji and jazz musicians (and only if they’re playing that night). Well, and sometimes me… but I am not an aspirational figure for the late 00s. My point is, if he’s still making the same references, they probably have meaning to him that isn’t relative to their current market value.

    Unless the argument is that he is trying to be Tanaka-ish but he just doesn’t know what’s cool any more, like a webcomic that still does Everquest jokes? I think he’s a more skillful observer than that.

    I can’t take him seriously until he applies his “dark heart of Japanese society” theory to his own success.

    “South of the border, west of the sun.”

  13. Daniel Says:

    Mulboyne: That was really interesting stuff.

    It’s interesting to note that Ladbrokes was closer this year than in the past few years. Lessing and Pamuk are listed in the article, and Harold Pinter won at 20/1.

    Also, for every story Murakami has written with a pop culture reference, there are plenty of stories without any references. The ones with references just get cited more often. That and his most popular novel (in Japan) borrowed a Beatles song for the title.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    Daniel – For starters, I`ve read more Murakami stuff in Japanese than I have in English so I`m not limited by what is translated. I have a problem with some of the works where he departs from his narrator character. Take “TV People” for example (translated, I know, but it was the one that came to mind). For me, it is a watered down Hoshi Shinichi short. It seems to me that when Murakami gets away from his marketable narrator, he turns up being a bit derivative. It is not that he is not “good”, just that I never get what Matt so aptly described as the punch in the gut of greatness (Roger Ebert calls it a tingle in the spine that separates an all-time great).

    You are 100% correct that Oe, for examples, writes in “characters” (but not the otaku type) – so did Dostoevsky, for that matter. The difference, for me, is that Murakami never stops selling his protagonist as (what Marxy describes better than I did)as a taste marker. Oe`s “I” character from “A Personal Matter” – at times you hate his guts, he shocks you, offends you with how selfish he is (just like Raskolnikov). 95% of the time, you want to sit down and have a drink with Murakami`s leads. That blunts his thematic impact in my opinion.

    On the anime and manga thing – don`t want to write an essay here, but as those media have become more introspective, they have often outdone Murakami at his own game in the area of tone and often provided more exciting social criticms – Oshii Mamoru, Anno Hideki, Kon Satoshi, Shinkai Makoto in anime all combine an introspective unreal space with nostalgia just like Murakami does, and I would argue that they often do it better. In manga, I`d point to Mushishi, Otomo`s shorts, Saikyo Densetsu Kurosawa, some of the better chapters of Hirokane`s Tasogare Ryuseigun, etc.

  15. Daniel Says:

    I just don’t buy the whole consumerism thing…what exactly is he selling? Is it really so terrible to like the narrator? As with Oe, I think he’s trying to say something with the character, not just write character for character’s sake. And besides, whenever I think back on Murakami stories, I generally remember feelings he evoked, not a list of CDs to rent at Tsutaya. Not all his stuff hits the spot even for me, I’ll admit that, fanboy though I am.

    I was surprised how varied Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was…I think that collection really shows off his range, even if it’s out of the Japanese context, which hides his development as a writer. Although, to be honest, it was just a massive book. It reminded me of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver – not something you’d want to plow right through, but good for picking up every now and then.

  16. Aceface Says:

    “I have zero idea why you would say this. I don’t see anything similar at all.”

    1)Both write about middle aged solitary male living in the big city with strong addiction to music.
    2)Lots of names of consumer products and musicians appears in the sentences.
    3)They both attracts same kind of readership.

    And I have to agree with M-Bone.Some of the essays like “村上朝日堂”series are ridiculous.They are not being translated into English,Are they?(They have been translated into Korean though)

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    Are you sure you aren’t thinking about Nick Hornsby? Murakami is definitely more “literary” but basically in the same boat.

  18. komomola! » Blog Archive » murakami perdido Says:

    […] murakami perdido. y por qué no Ko Machida o Mari Akasaka. es que Haruki Murakami es popular porque está experimentando menos con el idioma y metiendo más tramas y trampas y tremendas referencias de carácter popular, a veces japonés exótico, a veces cosmopolitano. Y con todas sus vitalidades y talento, me parece tremendamente poco “edgy”. Por ejemplo Eco ha hecho lo posmoderno burlando lo moderno pero al fin y al cabo esa posmodernidad era declarada por el autor como calculada o controlada. Si Disneyland fuera la posmodernidad, Eco puede ser para la gente simple la experiencia de disfrutar Disneyland, pero también puede ser una experiencia de conocer el psicoanálisis de Disneyland y su muchedumbre. Así que en este sentido de meta-meta-modernidad, podríamos calificarle a Eco como edgy en cierto sentido. […]

  19. Aceface Says:

    “Are you sure you aren’t thinking about Nick Hornsby?”

    Damn! Irvine Welsh is “Trainspotting” guy,right? And”High Fidelity” guy is Nick Hornby,Shame.

  20. W. David MARX Says:

    When I think of Irvine Welsh, I think of heavy dialect and shocking R-rated plots. I don’t see a lot of that in Murakami.

  21. M-Bone Says:

    “shocking R-rated plots. I don’t see a lot of that in Murakami.”

    Murakami Ryu!

  22. cee Says:

    Nick Hornby’s also one of those who’s been set into a type – his first novel had an lead character obsessed with football rather than music (who needed to tamp down the obsession in order to become a real adult (which seems to be the message of all his novels)), but since he got so much more famous off the back of High Fidelity he decided to plough the ‘men who live their lives through records’ furrow into oblivion.

  23. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I do think the (accidental) analogy to Irvine Welsh is interesting, though. They do have basically the same reader profile–literary cred spilling out into campus popularity. And remember all those posters and t-shirts quoting Renton’s big “choose life” speech? Don’t tell me a big part of Trainspotting’s appeal wasn’t the opportunity it offered children of privilege to mentally slum it and feel “real”. As evidence I offer the fact that everyone who reads the book speaks in a Scottish accent for the duration and a day or two afterwards.

  24. Aceface Says:

    OK,Matt just wrote everything I wanted to say and even more.

    I remember back in June,1989 and I was still freshman in college watching TV showing the demonstrator in Beijing.And I was talking to my friends that now we see all the changes that only happens once in a century like communism in Eastern Europe are falling and Chinese standing up for democracy,yet we here in Tokyo are just sitting in cafe-bar reading “Norweigian Woods” and sipping latte or something.It was one of those talks that we Japanese are living in the oblivion of materialism and totally cut off from the ongoing of the history that’s been played in outside world.

    Never had the idea came upon me that Murakami would have become a huge boom in China a decade later.

    Todai’s Prof.Fujii Shozo has been an expert of Lu Xun for years,but recently he somewhat switched to Murakami expert in greater China.According to his word,Murakami is the only author since Lu Xun that gained Pan-East Asian readership and Fujii is interested in the perception of Murakami in different places like Taipei,Beijing,and Seoul.
    At first I was very surprised the comparison of Lu Xun and Murakami,the former is the champion of literal commitment to politics and revolution and the latter champion of human isolation and consumer materialism.
    But then again,the days of politics are over in East Asia and burn-out student actiivist narrative of Murakami could have been fitted to those who actually lived such experience in South Korea/Taiwan and China.

  25. Daniel Says:

    I can’t help but feel that you guys are misreading Murakami. Hard-boiled Wonderland was the first book I read, and I grew up reading William Gibson and other SF writers, so I thought that world was so cool. For a long time I thought it was awful to try and put him in a political context, but it’s unavoidable.

    I see Norwegian Wood as the real starting point. Murakami couldn’t write about it at first, but that’s where everything begins – Toru and Naoko’s friend commits suicide in a kind of premonition of the bad to come. Everything falls apart around Toru: right wingers either tout the party/status quo line (Stormtrooper) or cunningly abuse the system (that character that eventually gets into politics), left wingers are so confused themselves they don’t even support people who want to work for change (Midori tries to join the Communist club), and basically things descend into chaos (I’m think of that one scene where Toru is just completely shaken by the disaster of Shinjuku around him).

    And there are countless victims – Naoko (suicide), political guy’s girlfriend (suicide), Reiko (traumatized and sent into a mental hospital), Midori (Toru could have been hope for her, but…) and Toru himself, who spends the novel in search of input (sexually, musically or literarily) and probably hurts both Midori and Naoko. This is all a simultaneous political and personal fight.

    The rest of his work, where he really starts from, is about how to live in a world where everything “right” failed. The protests failed, although the protesters themselves were rotten from the start. Friends have died (the Rat) or disappear (girl with the ears), and no one has an easy time living (alcoholic coworker in the translation company, secretary that he marries and divorces). Things deteriorate into vapid consumerism (Dance Dance Dance).

    His boku persona isn’t happy with this situation, but what else can he do? All the righteous posturing and radicalism failed. In the end we’re all just trapped in the merry-go-round of life. People can try to change for the better – the women in “Lederhosen” and “Takushii ni notta otoko” who leave their husbands – but it’s not easy to live free and well.

    For a long time boku does nothing, but in later works (Wind-up Bird) he seems a little more determined to fight against something (Noboru Wataya, the system, etc). It’s unfortunate that Murakami’s cool boku gets the brunt of the focus and the criticism. This will always attract the criticism that he is passive, not as aggressive as the other Murakami (Ryu).

    The funny thing is that the past six years have basically been a repeat of the late 60s with even more posturing and meaninglessness. 2003 was especially hilarious. There were protests but they did nothing. (In an only somewhat unrelated side note, one of the ultimate ironies of the 2003 protests was that a news crew confused freshman housing day at Harvard, when the freshman get their housing assignments and are welcome by upperclassmen, with a massive war protest: )

    Did any of the protesting keep us out of Iraq? Are you really sure that things will be better (or even different) with either of the two candidates we have now in the US? Just thinking about it kind of makes me want to sit in my room, listen to MJQ and drink whiskey all day.

    Murakami may be passive, I’ll concede that argument, but he’s observant and on point with a lot of his social criticism. Most of his observations have to do more with how people react when they come into contact with the irrationalities inherent in modern life rather than how to aggressively change things for the better. No one has figured that out yet.

  26. W. David MARX Says:

    That’s a pretty good defense, and I think some of his works like Pinball and Hard-Boiled are very cleverly structured.

    Looking back though, I find his narrator totally out-of-touch with actual Japanese society. He’s always just this incredibly relaxed guy in his amazing suburban Setagaya house, cooking pasta, listening to jazz or classical, and then is embroiled in some epic otherworldly mystery… You get the sense that boku has never once had to think about becoming a commuting salaryman, although maybe I read the wrong novels.

    I always felt like Murakami’s early stuff was the literary equivalent of Wong Kar-Wai. I like Wong, but he’s mostly very good at very chic romances rather than films ruminating on the universal human condition. Wong could easy make “100% Perfect Girl” (or whatever that’s called) into a short film.

    when the freshman get their housing assignments and are welcome by upperclassmen, with a massive war protest:

    Ha ha, “Pfuck the River.” Hard to confuse pro-Pforzheimer sentiment with politics.

  27. Daniel Says:

    I like the Wong Kar-Wai comparison. And yeah, Murakami’s definitely a bit of an outsider in Japan. Perhaps that’s why he’s so popular abroad, and so comfortable there. But can’t that criticism, the fact that he doesn’t speak for the Japanese everyman, be leveled at a lot of writers, especially Akutagawa winners? And definitely Oe and Kawabata, who both write about professors in their famous works.

  28. Daniel Says:

    Forgot to add this link – Murakami talking about the political scene:

    In the end it’s a matter of taste, of course. Some people will like him, some won’t. It’s just too easy and a little silly to dismiss him for being light.

  29. M-Bone Says:

    Daniel, you did give a very good defence. You highlighted some of the things that I DO like about Murakami. There is a chance here that we are just using different standards to measure great literature, but I continue to file Murakami under “not quite”. If its any consolation, I only count about 20-30 writers as truly great and probably only 5-10 Japanese.

    “The rest of his work, where he really starts from, is about how to live in a world where everything “right” failed.”

    The ideological implosion that you described was interesting to read. I believe, however, that Murakami pretty much just gave us a portrait of self-destruction and hopelessness. The film “Requiem for a Dream” did the same thing but I feel that both just made us feel bad without having that extra layer of realization or (on the part of the author) biting self-criticism. “Trainspotting” is another good example here, come to think of it.

    The real problem for me, is what seems to be Murakami`s answer “how to live in a world where everything “right” failed.” It seems to be this amazingly unrealistic, (as Marxy mentioned) divorced from society, in the way that people actually have to earn money or be responsible for their actions) quirky guy living an enviable lifestyle and occasionally getting angsty about the state of things.

    “Did any of the protesting keep us out of Iraq?”

    I would argue that the continued relevance of anti-war ideas in Japan has kept the LDP from revising the constitution. That`s nothing to scoff at. Murakami Ryu has looked at all kinds of things like international volunteerism, Japan’s global place, etc. while Haruki was putting on another jazz record. Not that Ryu is “great” or anything, but the variety of his achievements is something to be admired.

    To give you a better idea of what I demand from “great” literature –

    Kawabata – not just about a professorial elite. I can’t even remember what the old man in “House of the Sleeping Beauties” did for a living. I do know, however, that the character helped me to understand ageing, fear, and decline better than I did before. The story is also an allegory of gender relations and consumerism that is chilling.

    Oe – Murakami ran away from a world where everything “right” failed. Oe had to find a way to stay and raise a severly handicapped child and shared the entire mental process with us. There’s an honesty that there transcends social place (I think that character was a student) and we feel the weight of life-altering consequences that Murakami rarely has faced in his writing.

  30. Daniel Says:

    Man, I can’t believe you just compared Murakami to Requiem for a Dream. I’ve never felt anything like that. I always felt like Murakami was adept at noticing the funny way the world works – finding the mysterious and frightening, the strange coincidences, and remaining somewhat carefree and optimistic despite Yossarian-esque circumstances.

    Murakami tried to change things at times. I heard him say first hand that he tried working with people after the quake in ’95, but he added that no one would listen. (And one just has to page through the Japan Times [] or even previous posts on NJ or MのT to see that all is not well.)

    “Murakami may be passive, I’ll concede that argument, but he’s observant and on point with a lot of his social criticism. Most of his observations have to do more with how people react when they come into contact with the irrationalities inherent in modern life rather than how to aggressively change things for the better.”

    I don’t think anyone’s addressed that yet. I really think it’s a critical part of his works. And again, there’s more to Murakami than just boku. His short stories really fill out his body of work. If you’re going to compare him to anyone, it has to be Salinger and Carver – two writers well known for their short stories. Look there for what his goals as a writer might be.

    Murakami is read farther and wider than most authors, so clearly the picture of the world he’s painting resonates, if you want to talk about transcending social place.

    And hell, at least he hasn’t staged a coup d’etat yet.

  31. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Hey, Mishima did that one time!

    M-Bone, just out of curiosity, are any of those manga authors/anime writers/directors you mention above in your top 30?

  32. M-Bone Says:

    “M-Bone, just out of curiosity, are any of those manga authors/anime writers/directors you mention above in your top 30?”

    No. The list starts with Homer, BTW. Of people mentioned in this thread – Mishima would be on there and Eco. Oe is borderline. Pamuk has a way to go. Oh yeah, Dostoevsky.

    Daniel – I think that his leftwing apocalypse vignette is similar to Requiem, not the body of work. He goes from there to be sad, funny, quirky, at times commercial, etc.

    “Murakami is read farther and wider than most authors”

    … and more people watch “Iron Man” than Bergman. I’m not saying that Murakami is like “Iron Man”, just that being read widely is not the way to measure greatness.

    “into contact with the irrationalities inherent in modern life”

    But people like DiLilo do this without 200 pages of feel-good boku.

  33. Daniel Says:

    At this point we’re two sheeps passing in the night. I understand that you’re not a big fan, but I can’t help but feel that you’re just being dismissive.

  34. Aceface Says:

    That might tells us one of the reason why Murakami not getting the award,Daniel.

  35. Daniel Says:

    As mentioned in the article, Murakami’s won several serious literature prizes. There’s a difference between disliking his work and casually dismissing him with trite reasoning.

  36. Daniel Says:

    Halfway to the Saaya Irie post!

  37. Hlem Says:

    “people like DiLilo do this without 200 pages of feel-good boku.”

    People who are not Dellilo may even do this without doses of pretension strong enough to tranquilize elephants.

  38. Aceface Says:

    Anybody heard about the anonimous lit column on Tokyo/Chunichi Shimbun “大波小波”?


  39. M-Bone Says:

    “but I can’t help but feel that you’re just being dismissive.”

    Maybe, but it seems like nearly everybody else here seems in agreement that Murakami is a very good writer, but also a purveyor of slick commercial products, right? I noticed this picked up on JapanProbe as well and most of those posters were doubtful about Murakami’s Nobel qualities – one made the astute point that he’s been writing the same novel for 15 years.

    I was having fun with this thread but since you’ve dismissed what I’m saying as “trite” and “silly” at two points, I’m going to start coming back hard. First, you should re-read your own posts here and consider if you made a good case for Murakami deserving a Nobel.

    Second, you should think about Murakami the author and some of his obvious flaws. In one sense, Murakami has a big dose of fraud to him. Sure, his fans love this “I write my novels in English and translate them into Japanese” bull, but should we really take this seriously? Isn’t it just another example of Murakami trying to brand himself?

    You seem to concede that there are problems with his novels but that the short stories make up for this. One work does not make up for another and if the novels have meandering consumerist flaws, this is the work that Murakami is most well known for it and the criticisms should stand.

    I mentioned that I consider much of Murakami’s short stuff to be derivative of Hoshi Shinichi’s work. You didn’t take up this point. Aceface called another series of his short work(村上朝日堂)”ridiculous” and I think that that is a fair point as well. In my opinion, great writers don’t write bad or derivative stuff on the side.

    I said up front that I actually enjoy Murakami’s fiction quite a bit. I don’t think, however, that he measures up well against many contemporary authors and has yet to write a novel that does not have the taint of self advertisement and the attempt to build a disjointed, escapist consumer fantasy around his central character.

    You make some good points about why you like the novels, but isn’ your major argument here something like “you SHOULD acknowledge Murakami’s greatness”? Should I really? I don’t think that you have made the best case for that. Murakami may have gotten some prizes, but as Aceface alluded to, he may never be seeing a Nobel Prize because many people feel the same way that I do.

  40. Daniel Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that all of your argumentation was trite, only that people are often quick to relegate him to the commercial/consumer/pop/young category and imply that he’s a second-rate author, that he’s not even trying to address serious themes and topics. He seems to get this more often than other writers (although I realize he’s not the only one). We can debate over whether his means to the end is successful (and also whether or not we like those means) but the criticism that he’s not even in the same category as other writers is just unfairly crippling.

    “in the way that people actually have to earn money or be responsible for their actions) quirky guy living an enviable lifestyle and occasionally getting angsty about the state of things.”

    Wind-up Bird is the only one where boku is unemployed or not in school. All the others are employed, whether it’s “shoveling cultural snow,” translating, securing data or whatever.

    I think the whole “I write in English” thing has been taken too far. I think most of it comes from a few sound bites right after he won the Gunzo Prize. He’s since admitted that he’s a Japanese author and has no choice but to write in Japanese. I think he probably did minor reverse-translation for some of Hear the Wind, but there’s no way he’s done that for all of his works, and I don’t think he was really trying to sell himself that way.

    As for the Asashi-do…of course it’s ridiculous if you’re judging it on the same level as Wind-up Bird, but really it’s in an entirely different category. If you want to consider it literary slumming, I guess that’s okay, but it’s impressive how accessible he was for a while, and looking back on it, it’s almost ahead of its time, kind of blog-like.

    I haven’t read enough Hoshi Shinichi to make a decent argument against you, but if you’re looking at “TV People,” can you really consider that representative of his short fiction? I think stories in the vein of “Slow Boat to China,” “New York Mining Disaster” and “Last Lawn of the Afternoon” are more along the lines of the themes he normally works with. (And yes, another plug here for Dead Heat – a solid little collection.)

    I understand what people dislike about some of his novels (the Rat series + Dance Dance Dance), but I don’t agree with it. I think you made the best argument when you said he’s trying to “sell” a character (although as I mentioned I like to think he’s trying to say something with that character), but beyond that and the name dropping (which I think he does out of sincerity and not to “guide” people, similar to what Matt said above), I don’t see how he’s consumerist.

    I liked Aceface’s last little post, because the guy makes a good point – the list of non-winners has, arguably, just as many good writers as the list of winners. One thing I’d really like to hear from you guys (honestly curious!) is excluding Murakami who do you think the next Nobel literature winner from Japan would/should be? (Or is Japanese literature just as primitive as US literature is right now according to the Swedes?)

  41. Aceface Says:

    I think the Swedes argument on American lit doesn’t do justice for there are many emigre writer in American literature scene.And I don’t think Swedes(or Europeans)seriously mind about J-literature.
    But to answer your question,while I am skeptic on Murakami getting the Nobel prize,I think he is the only guy who can get wide readership abroad.
    If only Nakagami Kenji was alive….

  42. M-Bone Says:

    Daniel, just want to say that this IS a very fun and interesting literature discussion. My thanks. In any case, I don’t even mind if you bust some of my points as trite (just try to indicate which ones next time).

    I think that we have a very strong point in common here – I also think that Murakami is a first rate writer in the contemporary field. Aceface’s post was interesting, as you mentioned, but when having this kind of discussion, I don’t like trying to second guess the prize committee too much. I think that if we are going to debate who deserves a Nobel prize, we should work under the assumption that it should go to the “greatest living author” (how we define that).

    “All the others are employed, whether it’s “shoveling cultural snow,” translating, securing data or whatever.”

    In most of those cases, however, we don’t really get the feeling that “work” is a real part of his life. With “work” and “family” (children) excised from Murakami’s novels, I think that his potential to comment with top level insight on Japanese society is limited. Consider, for a moment, Oe’s “A Quiet Life” – he summons up much of the same quirky take on the contradictions of Japanese social life that Murakami uses, but also gives us a first rate portrait of a tortured thinker trying to negotiate his position in a family as well. For me, these are significant layers of depth that Murakami rarely reaches. I think that the earlier point that was made about DeLillo being pretentious is also worth brining up here. Yes, DeLillo is pretentious. However, much of his work examines pretentious intellectuals. We don’t see this type of thing nearly enough from Murakami.

    “I don’t think he was really trying to sell himself that way.”

    I could be wrong as I have not seen these comments in Japanese. It could be a facet of how they are choosing to pitch him in the English-speaking world (as in “too cool” to give in to Japanese norms!). Have to look into this.

    “As for the Asashi-do…of course it’s ridiculous if you’re judging it on the same level as Wind-up Bird, but really it’s in an entirely different category.”

    In assessing greatness, I tend to hold the whole body of work to a certain standard. In any case, it is certainly not the type of thing that I see as a meandering flaw in Wind-up (which I really enjoyed, BTW).

    Should read “Dead Heat”, I guess. It is not just TV People that has the Hoshi Shinichi (who I recommend highly) thing going, some of his other short fiction seems to do little to distinguish itself from the stories of Miyamoto Teru and others.

    “who do you think the next Nobel literature winner from Japan would/should be? (Or is Japanese literature just as primitive as US literature is right now according to the Swedes?)”

    I think that Endo Shusaku should have gotten one and wish that they were awarded posthumously. As for the present crew, I’m not sure that any Japanese author has the established chops to be named hands down “the greatest living author not to have received a Nobel prize” without politics coming into play. I do think that Japanese literature is actually very, very strong at present. In a way, however, with Turkey, some African countries, etc. experiencing the types of literary attempts to negotiate between personal and national identity that made for the greatest Japanese literature of the 1950s and 1960s (and also Soseki, Ogai, etc. earlier) it is quite easier for them to break ground than contemporary Japanese who are working in a literary tradition that has become somewhat bloated and aimless (although still excellent and readable).

    In my opinion, the literary world is in flux at present – there are more and more “star” debut authors. One will note that American authors in particular, have become more and more, ummmm…. photogenic over the last generation. In other words, if you aren’t going to look good on the talkshows or provide a good jacket photo – they probably don’t want to publish your literature. As a result, there is greater literature coming out of the “developing world”, I think, and I would like to see more Nobel prizes going there (and Umberto Eco, who rocks).

    No need to look down on American literature, either. I think that Cormac McCarthy should get the prize, come to think of it.

  43. Aceface Says:

    Looks like Murakami had just finished his new book.

  44. Daniel Says:

    Yeah, I’ve enjoyed it, too, even if one of the main things I’ve been thinking is, “Holy crap, there are so many things I need to read.”

    You guys may know more about his background than me, but Masao Miyoshi was one of the first critics of Murakami, and the dude was pretty low and harsh. You can see a quote of it here under the Yoshimoto Banana profile. That was a while back, before a lot of his stuff was written, but whenever anyone breaks out the commercial/pop critique I’m always reminded of it. He reminds me of the curmudgeonly critics in the vein of Ishihara Shintaro, which is why I added that link above. So yeah, I bring that chip on my shoulder to the debate. Always hated that dismissal of Murakami and Yoshimoto.

    You’re right on with how he excises the family from lots of his works, but isn’t that because he focuses on the individual? I guess that’s kind of a cheap way out of that argument, but that’s always been his kind of niche. He’ll never write The Makioka Sisters. I think that famous line from Soseki’s Kokoro (Something like, “Is it ever possible for one individual to ever truly know another”) is a good way to express what Murakami addresses in his works, and that’s a topic that others don’t address in the same way.

    There’s a strong appeal in Murakami’s individualism, but at the same time it’s very divisive. I watched that new documentary on Hunter S. Thompson, and I think he’s divisive in the opposite way as Murakami. His lifestyle and response to a world that doesn’t make sense is appealing to many people, but it turns other people away for the same reasons. Like Thompson, Murakami is fairly unwavering.

    “I tend to hold the whole body of work to a certain standard.”

    But what is work? All writing? Would you include personal letters? What about blog posts and these comments? I think they have to be considered in at least a slightly different category, especially now that media has expanded so broadly thanks to the Internet.

    How much do you want to bet that the translation of Murakami’s upcoming novel has one of the following on the cover of the UK edition: 1) half-naked Asian chick, 2) cherry tree, 3) animal from the title, 4) some terrible collage of all three?

  45. M-Bone Says:

    “You’re right on with how he excises the family from lots of his works, but isn’t that because he focuses on the individual?”

    Yes, but one of the main points that I want to make is that this has an impact on his thematic diversity. I’ve gotten to know Murakami’s individual to the degree that I’m not sure that he has anything to say to me at this point. Some of the other works that I mentioned (Oe’s Quiet Life) for example, are actually about how the writer is trying to maintain his sense of self (or his “inner life” as Oe describes it) in a family setting. Here we get a sense of growth and negotiation of individual identity in a group that I’ve rarely had from Murakami. Many authors who have had very potent “individual” works (Doestvsky, Chekov, Mishima, Kawabata) have also written strikingly about the family.

    “Would you include personal letters?”

    Personally, yes. I do leave room for growth, however (bad works early career are forgiven more easily than a late career relapse).Perhaps not if I were evaluating a Nobel candidate, however. To use an extreme example, I downgrade Wagner for his anti-semitism. Can still enjoy the works individually, but it impacts my view of the career and the individual. H.P. Lovecraft, who was very forward with his racism in some published writings, gets downgraded even further.

    On the issue of expanding media – blog posts, for example, would not have to be great literature, just great blog posts. Different media deserve different standards.

  46. Aceface Says:

    ” I think that Cormac McCarthy should get the prize, come to think of it.”

    Should he? Oh Yeah,I liked “The Road”.
    But he fills in the same category with Murakami in a way.Too much a popular writer for a Nobel prize.

  47. M-Bone Says:

    Ace, have you read “Blood Meridian”?

    I can’t think of many American novels less populizing. Harold Bloom, anointer of canon works, has anointed it as one of the 20th century’s finest novels.

    I think that it may be the single greatest work of American literature. Some of the most powerful prose in English.

    Steve Shaviro on the book –

    “In the entire range of American literature, only Moby-Dick bears comparison to Blood Meridian. Both are epic in scope, cosmically resonant, obsessed with open space and with language, exploring vast uncharted distances with a fanatically patient minuteness. Both manifest a sublime visionary power that is matched only by still more ferocious irony. Both savagely explode the American dream of manifest destiny, of racial domination and endless imperial expansion. But if anything, McCarthy writes with a yet more terrible clarity than does Melville.”

    More terrible clarity than Melville is terrible indeed.

    Also, consider how “No Country for Old Men” – a minor McCarthy novel – has pretty much been adopted as a “classic” film already – by many of the same types that end up voting for Nobels.

  48. Daniel Says:

    M-Bone – Now you’ve put me in a Catch 22. You say Murakami’s individual doesn’t speak to you. Fine. But when I counter with the fact that he speaks to many others – and not just speaks to; truly resonates with – you counter with the fact that he’s over-popular. This is an argument I have no chance of winning.

    Different media deserve different standards.

    That’s all I wanted to hear.

  49. M-Bone Says:

    Daniel – Is simply resonating with people really a mark of great literature? I think that finding a balance between resonance and challenging people’s established ideas is necessary to meet the (admittedly arbitrary) standards that I am putting forward. These standards are shared by some of Murakami’s hardest critics (like Oe) and appear very frequently in literary criticism.

    To use another extreme example – there are many, many people who find J-drama or Chick Lit heroines to be resonant – they admire the lives that they live, the brand names that they drop, they pattern their personal style and consumption after them, they may even weep for their failed romances, etc. – but is this resonance really a sign of the aesthetic or thematic superiority of the works? Something like “Fuyu no Sonata” can be aesthetic garbage and yet still reduce thousands of middle aged Japanese women to tears or raise them to a state of rapture. Are Murakami’s fans – some of whom will fly halfway around the world to catch a glimpse of him running this or that marathon – really working on a different level of resonance?

    Now Murakami does what he does with a great deal more style and polish and works in occasional fine insights, but to put it in a bottom line sort of way – he is way behind many other Nobel winners and other authors that we have discussed here in two areas that I value highly – diverse themes and insightful self-criticism / reflection. The (often total) lack of these in most of his major works makes me rate him less highly than I do others.

    “That’s all I wanted to hear.”

    BUT, the standards that I apply to short stories and novels, the root of this part of our discussion, are similar. Same ballpark while blog posts are not.

  50. Aceface Says:

    Never read “Blood Meridian”.Only read two of border trilogy and “The Road”.I also saw the movie of “No Country for the Old Men”,but not the book.So I may not be doing justice here.

    Yet still,the idea of McCarthy getting a Nobel reminded what Vladimir Nabokov said on Joseph Conrad.
    Nabokov thought Conrad is “a writer for boy scouts”(or something like that in Playboy interview).And I agree with that to certain extent and if I’m not mistaken that is the reason why Graham Greene couldn’t get the Nobel prize(along with the fact that his books are regular in the best sellers lists in English speaking world).

  51. Daniel Says:

    BUT, the standards that I apply to short stories and novels, the root of this part of our discussion, are similar. Same ballpark while blog posts are not.

    Asahi-do was the root of that part of the discussion.

  52. M-Bone Says:

    “Asahi-do was the root of that part of the discussion.”

    For me, it was the part where you said that his short stories round out the body of work. This is the problem with trying to have a discussion over a period of weeks….

    In any case – what is your favorite Murakami novel and what is the single thing that you find the most attractive about it?

    Ace – I think that Blood Meridian towers over McCarthy’s body of work (although nothing that I have read is “bad” or anything). In this one, McCarthy also meets one of the other demands that I make of “great” literature – it places itself firmly into a literary tradition by making use of allusion (to biblical / classical sources) but often does it in a mocking or subversive way so as not to be bound in by its influences. He also takes the American mythology of the Western and turns it on its head.

    “Nabokov thought Conrad is “a writer for boy scouts”(or something like that in Playboy interview).”

    Did he say how “Heart of Darkness” fits with this? I’m not a big fan of Conrad’s other stuff, actually.

    There is also the chance that Nabokov felt a need to knock Conrad because the two of them usually compete for the title of greatest English prose from a non-native speaker. I’m guessing that this is why his name came up.

  53. Mulboyne Says:

    I also think highly of “Blood Meridian”. Oddly enough, I went into a cafe today and was shown to a table next to a young couple. Before I had even taken my coat off, I overhead the bloke saying

    “I’ve just finished a terrible Cormac McCarthy novel. You know, the man who wrote ‘No Country For Old Men?’ It was called ‘Blood Meridian’ and it was just an unintelligible cacophony of violence and nihilism. Absolute rubbish.”

    I was about to take serious issue with him, even at the risk of coming across as a “lone nutter” who interrupts other people’s conversations. Then I caught a glimpse of the girl’s face and it was clear that she was falling in love with her beau’s strident and unconventional opinions, no matter how unfounded, so I left them to it and found another table.

    Sorry for the distraction but this only happened a little over nine hours ago and clearly I still haven’t come to terms with the incident.

  54. M-Bone Says:

    “Sorry for the distraction but this only happened a little over nine hours ago and clearly I still haven’t come to terms with the incident.”

    When something like this happens, you should think WWJD -What Would the Judge Do?

    I’m surprised that you actually heard someone say “cacophony”.