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Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

We’ve just learned that in 1961, the jury for the Nobel Prize for Literature snubbed J.R.R. Tolkien. But the big news isn’t that he lost—so did Graham Greene, Robert Frost, and E.M. Forster that year. The really shocking news was the release of the derisive and not-so-intellectual commentary of the Nobel’s jury: that august group of judges who had been entrusted, on behalf of Alfred Nobel, to select “only the most worthy.”

One could just imagine the stimulating and elevated conversation that would arise in a year that had such luminary candidates as the aforementioned Tolkien, Greene, Frost, Forster, as well as Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, Lawrence Durrell, and John Steinbeck, who went on to win the next year.

But instead the excerpts read a bit like the outtakes from a fierce session of sorority rush, with apologies to the Greek system. The Nobel jury found that Tolkien (who was nominated by C.S. Lewis, a tidbit that warmed my heart) was ruled out because they felt The Lord of the Rings trilogy “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.” Ouch. And also, huh? Did they not read the books? Maybe Tolkien was not Gabriel García Márquez, but his storytelling was epic, mythical, stirring. Tolkien was a medieval history scholar, and he imbued so much of those legends into the many cultures (and languages) he created in the kingdom of Middle Earth.

The same jury ruled out both Frost and Forster, then 86 and 82 respectively, because of their “advanced age.” Despite the fact that the prolific and legendary Frost was still writing and publishing poetry, the jury argued that his age was “a fundamental obstacle, which the committee regretfully found it necessary to state”. They were much less kind to Forster, whom they called “a shadow of his former self, with long lost spiritual health.” Even as a shadow, Forster, who wrote the pioneering and seminal Modernist novels Howard’s End and  A Passage to India, was one of the most significant and influential writers of the 20th-century from a literary and a cultural standpoint. His themes of cultural conflicts, identity, and miscommunication still perplex us today—“only connect!” I’d like to think they’ve gotten over the ageism, as the latest winner, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, is 80, and in 2007, an 87-year-old Doris Lessing won.

I do imagine that it would be an immensely difficult job picking between these lettered giants.  It’s just that I would expect the dialogue to be more focused on the pluses, and er the literary qualifications, rather than on the negatives. One would expect the jury to be awe-struck and full of scholarly wonder at such an impressive slate. Instead, they lobbed a series of blackballs.

One thing I don’t want to get lost in all this hype is the merit and brilliance of 1961’s  winner: Ivo Andrić. There have been a few disparaging comments from the Tolkien camp. Whoa, whoa, whoa. If you have not read his masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina, then it’s a must for your TBR. The novel looks at the history, strife, and conflict in the Bosnian region as it plays out near a great stone bridge that was built in 1516. It reads much like a novel by James Michener or Edward Rutherford, with layered folklore and a changing cast of characters that unfold over centuries.  There are Serbs, Bosnians, Jews, Christians, Turks, and all of their families, communities, and cultures. The bridge stands indomitable until it is blown away at the start of World War I. “The summer of 1914 will remain in the memory of those who lived through it as the most beautiful summer they ever remembered, for in their consciousness it shone and flamed over a gigantic and dark horizon of suffering and misfortune which stretched into infinity.” Andrić’s “Bosnian Trilogy” (The Bridge on the Drina, Bosnian Chronicles, The Woman from Sarajevo) enjoyed a revival during the terrible unrest in that area during the mid-1990s. The novels still resonate today, and Andrić is claimed as part of Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian literature.

The jury notes from back in 1961, reveal that Greene and Blixen technically came in second and third, though there are no prizes for that. Still, it is confounding that the committee never chose to honor Greene, whose repeated nominations were passed over by several Nobel juries during the course of his lengthy career. He was in good company, though. The Pantheon of non-winners reads like a college syllabus: Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Ranier Maria Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, and more recently, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and Haruki Marakami.  In fact, Ernest Hemingway, who lost several times before finally winning in 1954, termed it the “IGnobel” prize.

It does make one wonder. I’m not sure how much crossover is on the committees, but this is the same organization that in 2009 chose President Obama as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize … two days after NASA bombed the moon.

As to all the ire over the Tolkien news, I’m still reeling from the outrageous and rather blasphemous claim that LOTR is not great storytelling. If anything, it is the apex and apotheosis of storytelling! The trilogy is ranked as the third best-selling novel worldwide, having sold over 150 million copies. Andrew Pettie wrote a wonderful article for the UK’s Telegraph “In Defense of J.R.R. Tolkien.” As Pettie noted, so “Tolkien wasn’t Tolstoy.” Then again, back in 1902 the Nobel committee also passed over Tolstoy, in favor of French poet René F. A. Sully-Prudhomme.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Nobel Chances Dashed by Poor Prose

In Defense of J.R.R. Tolkien

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To me, it seems fitting that the New York Marathon and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) both take place in November, since running and writing are very similar pursuits. There are the obvious comparisons: both require motivation, both can be challenging (OK, grueling), and both are somewhat addictive. I would take this further, though, and argue that writing is running for the mind.

Like runners, writers can get their fix many ways. This month some 250,000 determined souls are partaking in NaNoWriMo—a word-count marathon in which they will crank out 1666 words (about 6 pages) daily for a month-end total of 50,000 words (200 pages). For those of you who are rolling your eyes, here are six famous novels penned in under a month.

Others choose to more slowly craft their passages writing, editing, and revising as they go—kind of like fartleks or interval training. Graham Greene’s goal was to get 500 polished words each day. The hill run is the writing that you don’t want to do—a school assignment, a work memo, a business proposal. (Full disclosure: this post felt like a bit of a slog.) The sprint or speed workout is free writing, in which you just spew out whatever is in your head without worrying about structure or grammar for a short burst of time. Many writers use this technique to come “unstuck” from writer’s block. Finally, the grind-it-out track work, say running sets of 440s, is like the daily crank of writing a column, a blog, a journal, or a passage in a book. John Grisham maps out a detailed outline, and then progresses with a page a day.

I’d like to emphasize, though, that I’m speaking of writing in general terms here—not necessarily fiction, not even writing for publication—but simply typing or handwriting thoughts into words whether it’s in a diary, a memo, homework, or even a letter. Just as running boosts your muscles and your cardio-vascular system, writing gives your mind a real workout. The catch with writing is that you often have a good idea of what you want to say, but the tricky part, the gymnastics, comes when you try to string the words together. Even when we know what we want to write, it can be tough to actually do so. Words can come out the wrong way, be unclear and confusing, or simply not read as you had imagined they would. (For example, I wish this post came off a little breezier and more fun.) Even worse, sometimes the words don’t come out at all. But squeezing out those words, just like pushing for extra miles on a run, can really boost your brain.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information,” explains neurologist Judy Willis, MD, in a series of articles on the brain and education for Edutopia. Willis found this to be applicable even when students were writing about complex math and science theorems. Makes sense, because to write about something, your brain really needs to absorb and comprehend it.

In a study published in last February, a horticulture professor found that over a five-year period, her college students who had writing homework assignments scored significantly better on the same test (avg 16.2 out of 18 questions) than those who studied but had no writing assignments (avg 10.2 out of 18).

If you’re a runner, you know that just about any problem seems a little less intmidating after a long run. Sometimes the solution will actually come to you on the run—bingo—but, more often, you simply get a sense that you will be able to muddle through. Likewise, when faced with a daunting project at work or a personal problem, it really helps to write a detailed memo or plan-of-action. Somehow, the act of writing it out can make the whole thing seem more doable. You may even come up with new ideas or solutions because writing forces you to look at things from many angles. Did you ever not really like a book until after you had to write a paper about it? (Ahem, Moby Dick.) Then, in the process of digging around the book and analyzing it, you came to see new things and grew to appreciate, or even love, said book. The same way running stretches our leg muscles, writing expands our brain power.

In addition to firing up the neurons and pistons, which by the way running also does, writing is most therapeutic. Since the 1960s mental-health professionals have advocated “journal therapy” to combat stress and depression. If something’s really upsetting you, spend a few minutes venting about it with a pen or your laptop. If there’s a specific person involved, writing an imaginary letter or email in which you spew your frustrations can be a good thing. Just be careful to hit delete NOT send.

“Besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits,” writes Jessica Wapner for Scientific American, in the article “Blogging—It’s Good For You.” Turns out writing can also improve memory, sleep, and even boost the immune system—all benefits that are also attributed to running.

I’m thrilled at the explosion of bloggers on all subject matters. You can google just about any arcane fact—from the flower that only grows on two slopes of the Alps (Sempervivum pittonii) to the first US submarine (the Turtle)—and, voila! Someone has blogged about it. I hope the writing movement will continue to grow. Just as people run daily to keep fit, so should people take 15-30 minutes out of each day to write. It doesn’t have to be “the great American novel,” but your thoughts and musings are of value. It bothers me that people think that if they can’t write bestseller, they shouldn’t write at all. Heck, millions of runners train 5-7 days a week with no expectation of becoming Frank Shorter or Greta Waitz. More than 47,000 people entered this year’s NYC Marathon, but only a handful had a realistic expectation of winning. (Like accomplished authors, these elite runners dedicated most of their time to intense training and prepping.) The rest of the pack were there to run and, hopefully, to finish on their goal pace. Writing is and should be like that. People should write for themselves, regularly. Who knows? Maybe you will pen something that gets published and is widely read. But, more importantly, even if that’s not your aspiration, don’t let it stop you. Writing is like running for the mind—do yourself a favor and write!

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