Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The latest in world letters from Beijing, Oklahoma, and the UK.

Three superpowers this week compete for our attention with their respective updates in the realm of national literature. Our editors bring you news this week from the Beijing Literature Summit, the results of the Neustadt Prize in Oklahoma, and the continued fallout of the 2019 Booker Prize award in the UK. Read on to find out more!  

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting for China

“Beijing is the country’s literary mecca,” articles enthusiastically parroted this month as the nation’s capital held the 4th Beijing Literature Summit on October 18. Though the multifold of equally rich literary cities in this vast country could dissent, the summit and forum nevertheless overtook headlines as well-established members of the Beijing literati took the stage in the square at Zhengyangmen, the immediate heart of the city. Attendees included preeminent novelists Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声 and Liu Qingbang 刘庆邦, and the poet Yang Qingxiang 杨庆祥 (a leader of “new scar poetry”), as well as an assembly of Beijing’s foremost scholars, critics, and publishers.

The talks concentrated around three predominant themes: the past, present, and future of Beijing literature. Throughout the seventy years of the People’s Republic of China, literary culture in Beijing remained at the forefront of the country’s social and cultural reality, thereby receiving the most immediate impact from the tumultuous chronology of the country as a whole. In discussing the tremendous weight of history, Liang stated that the past is not overbearing but exists in a continuous exchange with the present. The question is, he said: “How should we use the text to state it?”

Beijing has no shortage of literary accolades; from Cao Xueqin to Cao Yu, members of the Chinese canon past and present have—whether in their works or their lives—chosen the capital. From this romantic legacy, however, blooms the concern of the present—what is the writer’s role in directing this city? There is plenty to fear in inheritance; as the critic Zhang Li 张莉 stated in her talk, even the cartography of Beijing is a pure accommodation of its history, and though to speak of Beijing in its own language is vital, the writer must be continually captured by change—to take in what the land has to give, and then use what was given to write the things that do not yet have language. Yang Qingxiang asserts: “Beijing has the responsibility to create its own, original grammar.” 

To live and create in this city is to be constantly torn between the enormous and the minute. Yang also referenced Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. “Every time I read this work,” he said, “I see two Pragues. One is aboveground, and one is in the gutters. It is the same as Beijing: there are two cities—two different bodies—yet they live, intertwined.” The writer Zhou Xiaofeng stated as well: “If it seems today that the literature of Beijing cannot measure up to its past ferocity, it’s because it has expanded and become fuller; it is no longer easy to define, but this vastness exemplifies its unique character.” Which is to say—this literature is not a biological body, growing predictably; it is an interactive, constant, chemical experiment. 

Rachel Allen, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the US

Across the arts, autumn inaugurates awards season, and literature is no exception. Earlier this month in Norman, Oklahoma, World Literature Today announced Ismail Kadare as the winner of the Neustadt Prize for International Literature. The $50,000-prize, sometimes referred to as the “American Nobel,” is given biannually at the University of Oklahoma; the recipient may be a poet, a playwright, or a fiction writer, and may write in any language, so long as a representative portion of her work can be found in English, the jury’s lingua franca. Unlike Nobel jurists, who are lifetime appointees to the Swedish Academy, Neustadt jurists occupy their positions only temporarily. Also unlike Nobel jurists, Neustadt jurists are themselves responsible for nominating the potential winners. Each of the nine jurists nominates a living writer; they then convene at the University of Oklahoma to select their winner. Kadare, an Albanian novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, was nominated by the Bulgarian poet, essayist, and fiction writer Kapka Kassabova. Other nominees for the prize included Emmanuel Carrère, Jorie Graham, Jessica Hagedorn, Eduardo Halfón, Sahar Khalifeh, Abdellatif Laâbi, Lee Maracle, and Hoa Nguyen.  

If the Neustadt is less famous than its flashier Swedish relation, it is also more avant-garde and less prone to controversy. The prize has been praised for its pluralistic approach to literature, comparatively and decidedly less Eurocentric than other international awards of its size. Frequently, former Neustadt nominees and winners have gone on to win the Nobel some years later (Gabriel García Márquez, Tomas Tranströmer, V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, and J.M. Coetzee are among the high-profile cases). Ismail Kadare’s victory this year was generally met with approval, with novelist Nilanjana Roy describing Kadare as an “accidental peacemaker” in the Financial Times. Roy notes that Kildare’s International Man Booker win back in 2005 was controversial, with Romanian poet Renata Dumitrascu questioning Kadare’s active party membership under the Hoxha regime. But in comparison to the Handke uproar, Neustadt reactions have been muted and congratulatory. It is interesting, at least, to notice that Oklahoma is one of the United States’ poorest and most conservative states. Sweden, famously, enjoys a much different international reputation. 

Daljinder Johal, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the UK

While the results of the Booker Prize have previously been discussed in the Asymptote blog, like 2019’s Nobel Prize in Literature, controversy and debate continue to haunt this year’s shared win of Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. From the off, the award has raised questions over the media’s possible bias in reporting this news, and whether or not Bernardine Evaristo has been sidelined. Furthermore, the judging of this award has thrown the results into doubt. The chairman of the jury, Peter Florence (founder of Hay Festival) even faces mockery for his cavalier flouting of the rule that there cannot be two winners of the prize.

Florence had previously discussed the intimidating task of judging this year’s prize, and Afua Hirsch—author, journalist, and a fellow member of the panel—wrote of being proud of the judging decision. But as Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, stated: “the thinking was that it just doesn’t work—it sort of detracts attention from both, rather than drawing attention to either.” This may be the case, as rather than focusing on the positive boost to the awardees’ careers, Evaristo’s previously unrewarded literary talent is being overshadowed, as well as Atwood’s donation of her £25,000 share of the prize money to Indspire, which supports the education of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students.

Above all, it’s Sam Jordinson’s article in the Times Literary Supplement that raises questions. Co-director of Galley Beggar Press and the publisher of Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport (also shortlisted for the prize), he lamented the decision, partially because of the publicized thought process behind the judging. He highlights in particular Hirsch’s article and her reasoning—“How do you judge the titanic career, the contribution to culture of Margaret Atwood, against the sheer beauty of Elif Shafak’s Istanbul?”—and detracts it, pointing out: “the rules state that the prize is about individual books, not a career.”

In fact, in this case, isn’t it even more worrying to judge based on external factors, as Atwood has not only produced a fantastic book, but also acts as a consulting producer for a hit TV series based on her previous book, The Handmaid’s Tale? There are enough obstacles in the literary industry for black female writers to receive recognition without having to compete on other fronts. Former Booker Prize judge Erica Wagner took this split decision even further, claiming it to be indicative of a wider (often political) inclination to flout the rules. 

It’s not all negative news, however. As the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo has observed that “these are unprecedented times for black female writers.” Similarly, many booksellers have rejoiced over the news. As they highlight, this decision could reflect “an incredible year of publishing,” and “this year’s prize will surely be talked about for years to come, as will these two brilliant books.”

In short, there’s the potential that this story could be much more than its decision, by beginning a wider conversation about the whole process of how we judge books in the twenty-first century literary industry.


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote blog: