Nobel Intentions

Max Fischer, of the Washington Post, nails it about the discussion over Malala Yousafzai today:

The Nobel Peace Prize committee may have been doing 16-year-old Malala a favor in passing her over, at least for now. More to the organization’s purpose, it may have been doing all of us a favor. The young woman’s power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message. It’s a way of letting ourselves off the hook, convincing ourselves that it’s simple matter of good guys vs. bad guys, that we’re on the right side and that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay, and it’s certainly not simple. The West has a lot of hard questions to grapple with, particularly given our own not-insignificant hand in Pakistan’s problems and the clear sense that we are not welcome. Awarding Malala the highest honor in peace-making, at the pinnacle of the campaign to remake her into a Western celebrity, would have validated that effort, deliberately or not. It would have reaffirmed that too-common Western habit that, by giving a powerful symbol a greater platform and lots of accolades, we’ll have fulfilled our duty. Like a sort of slacktivism writ large, awarding Malala the Nobel would have told us what we wanted to hear: that celebrity and “awareness” can fix even the worst problems. It would have made us less likely to acknowledge the truth, which is that it takes decades of hard work, not to mention a serious examination of our own role in the problem, to effect meaningful change.

This is my feelings expressed about as precisely as possible. We wanted an easy narrative, and never stopped to think of the meaning of the deeper conflicts that lay beneath the surface of that narrative. Ms. Yousafzai – note how everyone is on a first name basis with her, by the way – is an incredibly brave and impressive person. And stories don’t get much more black and white than the story of a 16 year-old getting shot in the head because she spoke her mind (and then, amazingly, miraculously, living to tell the tale).

But if Yousafzai keeps up her work, she’ll surely wind up as the youngest ever recipient one of these days.

That was also one of the things that really spoke in favour of her candidacy to me: the fact that the peace work of young people and that of women is systematically under-recognized both in the Nobels throughout the world. It would have been a powerful recognition of that. The youngest ever peace prize recipient was 33 when she won it in 1992, Rigoberta Menchu. She’s still only in her mid-50s. But still.


Oh, and people: Haruki Murakami as the frontrunner for the Nobel for literature? Please. He couldn’t write his way out of a wet paper bag with a sharp fountain pen. Get real. He is never getting it. Neither Dylan (the other strange obsession in my circles) nor him.

My shortlist for this year? Salman Rushdie (even though his latest have not been amazing), Thomas Pynchon, Jon Fosse, Peter Nadas, Don Delillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Handke … and Alice Munro. Called it! (Sort of.)

One weird thing about all of those writers, though (except Nadas, who I’ve only read one or two by, and Munro who is consistently brilliant), is that they are authors in precipitous decline. What happened to the late masterpiece?

  1. So excited about Alice Munro … I agree that while others are in decline she kept up her brilliance to her very last book.

    • Release said:

      Which, sadly, I understand she said will be her last. I should say I haven’t read everything by her, more like a representative sample. The collected stories and two collections, so I’ve read both early, middle and late stories by her and she seems remarkably and consistently good. And I love that it went to a short story writer! How long ago was that?

    • Release said:

      Oh, and I should also say that Murakami has written one remarkable book, which I think is indispensable: Underground. Which I think I’ve referenced in this blog before.

  2. Even though I don’t for a second think that Malala is doing this to gain awards, the first thought that came to my head when I heard she didn’t win was what Scorsese said about not winning an Oscar until 2006, and how he felt that it pushed him further because he didn’t win. I realize these are two separate situations.

    • Release said:

      But there’s a certain truth to that, JumbledWriter! And also, I should add: giving someone too high honours too early can be a huge millstone around the neck. Like giving the Nobel to Obama or the way reaching the pinnacle of their profession at 25 can ruin some people.

      Malala has already shown she is a young woman of unbelievable bravery and admirable qualities. She has many years to capitalise on her moral high ground and I hope she goes as far as she possibly can and achieves everything she wants to achieve.

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