9 November 2017

Cultural commentators across the world seemed collectively to breathe a sigh of relief when the Swedish Academy announced on Thursday last week that British author Kazuo Ishiguro had won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. After last year’s surprise announcement and Bob Dylan‘s uncomfortably drawn-out acceptance of the prize, it seemed to many that the Academy had finally managed to get back on track.

Media pundits were quick to provide an overview of Ishiguro’s long career and the novels that have stood out, the Man Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day (1989), the dystopian speculative novel Never Let me Go (2005), the 2015 fantasy novel The Buried Giant, and his first work, A Pale View of Hills (1982). It seemed a comfort to many journalists that there were, at least this time, actual novels to discuss, as well as tangible themes that have continually preoccupied the author (according to the Academy, ‘memory, time and self-delusion’). Aside from that, Ishiguro has been awarded the OBE, and has accrued a solid track-record as a generous public persona and literary celebrity. In terms of what many pundits understand by the term ‘literary’, then, Ishiguro, despite his relatively young age and omission from the latest bookies’ ‘author-most-likely’ lists, seemed somehow right, safe, his work speaking to universal human themes, rather than awkwardly topical socio-political issues. An uncontentious enough choice to ‘make the world happy’, in the hopeful words of the Permanent Secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius.

But what, in fact, is so different between Dylan and Ishiguro’s work, really? Music aside, what unites the two seemingly contrasting artists is the emphasis they place on the stories at the heart of the musical or literary work. From Dylan’s epic narratives, like the loping ‘Isis’, to his narratively-rich cowboy ballads and linguistically complex tongue-twisters like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the story drives the song. Ishiguro, famously, considers himself a storyteller first, not a novelist, whose work should quite naturally become like ‘public property, so that it gains the status where people feel they can actually change it around and use it to express different things’. And that’s why, for him at least, the story is more important than the finished product of the book. Stories have longevity, they thrive and morph over time, developing mythical or archetypal proportions as they mature, and they can be handed down orally, a practice regaining popularity though the growing international performance-poetry scene, or in print.

What is perhaps most important for Ishiguro about the story as an object of artistic endeavour is that stories represent common cultural currency: a story can belong to everyone. Indeed stories constitute the fabric of our own sense of self, as well as the narratives we tell and are told about our own cultures, our world. Ishiguro is to be commended when he worries that if ‘stories are left in the hands of professional storytelling institutions, like film studios and publishing houses, they are less likely to mutate in an honest way’. Although, as an alumnus of one such professional story-telling institution himself, and after winning the Nobel, such comments could be seen, at the very least, as Ishiguro biting the hand that feeds him.

But back to Ishiguro as the ‘safe’ option for this year’s Nobel Prize. Thinking about what unites Dylan and Ishiguro as Nobel laureates leads to the question of just how ‘safe’ an option Ishiguro actually is. I suggest that the seal of Nobel approval and the mass media relief belie the more interesting and ambiguous aspects of this particular story. First, Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in Japan but moved to the UK when he was five. Second, Ishiguro is the first author to win the prize who studied for a degree in creative writing (at the University of East Anglia). Third, his work has been criticised or plain misunderstood in the past for the porosity of its genre boundaries. From Never Let me Go to The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s work has enjoyed a reception history that has rehearsed the tedious and seemingly never-ending debates about the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, a modern debate that always seems to conceal by now very outdated assumptions about the value of ‘high’ as opposed to ‘low’ culture.

Ishiguro himself is wary of such distinctions, and sensitive to the mindless pursuit of cultural capital for its own sake through the consumption of ‘high’ literary fiction. ‘Is there something about books – as opposed to films and TV’, he wonders in an interview with Neil Gaiman, ‘that’s inextricably linked with a sense of class?’. Answering his own question, he continues:

There’s always been that aspect to books. I’ve been very aware that is part of why some people want to read my work: they think it’s prestigious to be seen to be holding a book by a literary author in their hand. If they are trying to make their way up the class ladder, it’s not enough just to make a lot of money: you’ve also got to be able to converse well about culture, read certain kinds of authors and go to certain kinds of plays. I’m always very uneasy about that.

In many ways, then, despite the elements that make him such a safe and ‘happy’ choice, like his gender (only 14 women have ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature), his status as a writer from the global north (when will Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o finally win his long-overdue Nobel?) and his choice of literary vehicle (the novel), Ishiguro is somewhat of a liminal figure, expressed perfectly by his sense of unease with the trappings of the industry in which he works. Certainly in terms of his mixed cultural heritage, which makes an important political point at a time of uncertainty and division in the United Kingdom’s post-EU referendum climate. But also in terms of his position as a professionally trained and accredited ‘writer’ in a cultural context that still very much values the model of the ‘gentleman’ literary ‘genius’. And, of course, in terms of his careful disregard for conventional genre categories. (‘Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry?’, he wondered in 2015.)

While some might see Ishiguro as the safer option, his selection can also be seen as a threshold moment. He is a kind of Janus-figure, gazing in different directions, both culturally and aesthetically, at the same time. To my mind, this choice points the way to a potentially riskier literary future, one that has a more open understanding of what, in the words of Alfred Nobel, ‘outstanding work in an ideal direction’ might be. Dylan was an ingenious choice. As was the equally contested selection of Dario Fo in 1997. But the literary world was not ready for it.

But we will have to be. Soon. We find ourselves at a time of booming and increasingly diverse creative practice. Advances in both digital and analogue technologies over the last thirty years have yielded many new platforms for creativity and self-expression, from the everyday use of social media, to Twitter and YouTube poetry, literary blogging, digital literature, hypertext fiction, self-publishing, augmented reality, gaming, digital platforms for downloading short fiction and poetry, to name but a few. In economic terms, the creative industries in the UK already make up over 5% of the UK’s economy and are growing at a rate that’s twice as fast as that of the economy as a whole. However, growth has not been happening across all creative sectors: in publishing, in particular, employment has actually fallen, while in music, design, fashion and IT services, job numbers are up by a third over five years.

What the innovative platforms listed above share that is famously lacking in the UK publishing industry is their increased degree of access to creative outlets for more people. They have multiplied the ways in which we can tell our own stories about our own lives and about the world. And, as the rise of fanfiction has shown us, they have opened up new ways of extending and transforming stories already in existence. I’m reminded again of Ishiguro’s concern that stories remain in the hands of people who can shape and grow them creatively rather than commercially. His words anticipate the increasing interactivity, the open access commons ethos at the heart of many of the new creative platforms discussed above.

Will Self might be proven prescient, then, in his prediction that the choice of Ishiguro as this year’s laureate ‘will do little to re-establish the former centrality of the novel to our culture.’ And maybe that’s OK. In the creative context in which we find ourselves today, it is perhaps right that we get used to a broader idea of what literature is, what it could be in the future — and, perhaps most importantly, who gets to create it. Who knows? We might also start to see a few more ‘risky’ options finally getting some well-deserved recognition for the stories they tell.