Friday, October 12th, 2012
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How to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature

So you didn't win a Nobel Prize in Literature this week. Unless your name is Mr. Mo. Although, if you live in Europe, you did win a consolation Nobel Peace Prize at least. (Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is like giving an Oscar to Alf.) Anyway, I know, it’s total bullshit. You totally deserved it. But you might just be a calendar year away from getting the recognition you so obviously deserve. Let me show you the way.

I waited by the phone all week for that congratulatory call from overseas myself! Not for the stuff I’ve already written, which, let’s admit, is pretty amazing. But for the stuff I could write. I’m not saying I’m the most deserving writer on Earth for this recognition. I just want the Swedish people to tell the world I am. Just as the Nobel Prize people preemptively gave President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize for what he could or would do in office, they should give a Nobel Prize in Literature to me (and then maybe the year after that to you) for what we will accomplish in our Literary Careers with the million bucks, the free donuts and champagne and the NPR drive-time interviews we’ll receive as a Nobel Prize Winner. No one remembers who wins the other prizes. They are in subjects most people failed. Chemistry, geometry? Who knows. And I’m not exactly a selfless hero leading my people to any kind of freedom. I have no good intentions here. Writers are all about ourselves! And although my half-written novel Yay-o-wolf remains half-written I think we can all agree it’s going to be the greatest thing since The Bridges of Madison County, which I believe won the Nobel Prize twice it was so good. (I just checked that on Ms. Google and The Bridges of Madison County hasn’t won the Nobel Prize—yet.) The Nobel Prize in Literature is given to a writer for the body of their work while they’re still alive, so they can give a speech in cold, cold Sweden. To blond children who do not laugh or clap, such as those featured in the documentary The Children of the Corn.

So what can you do, oh writer who has not yet died? Here are some helpful hints that you and I can use on our way to the top of the Literature Anthill!

RENOUNCE YOUR AMERICANISM

Everyone hates America. Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, New York City, all the Penguins in Antarctica—everyone. In their eyes, we’re basically a Hedonistic Iran. With a better military. We have to pay other countries to be our friends. Lots of money. Just to pick up the phone when we call. And although they may enjoy our “Jason Bourne” movies and Ke$ha songs, they couldn’t care less about the things we consider art. Unless you’re a Southern Writer. They love that twang. But Northern Fancy Yankee writing? No one cares. Joyce Carol Oates is never going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Possibly she will win one if they start giving one away for writing about Boxing, which they should. If she spent more than 50 seconds writing a book, she might have better odds. I mean, imagine it. Suddenly every three months there isn’t a new Joyce Carol Oates book. People get nervous. Is she OK, etc.? Yes, she’s fine. She is working on a book. And by working on it, we mean really working on it. Like taking years making everything just right. That book would probably be a million pages long and super-amazing. Because no one has ever edited a Joyce Carol Oates book. They come at you too fast, like snowballs in a nor’easter! You have to fight them off with a ski pole or they’ll hit you in the face. She just types with one hand and whips manuscript pages over her shoulder with the other.

So forget her. She’s talented, and at some point we may discover that she’s secretly half the writers in America, but she's not going to win. John Updike was supposed to win the Nobel like every year I was growing up. Why didn’t he? If he’d stopped writing in 1985 he probably would have. Unfortunately we had book after book from him, too. It’s not a volume industry, this heady literature thing. Most people only have one-and-a-half good books inside them. The idea is to spread that greatness through a career of maybe ten books. Why do great American writers write bad books? Because publishers put so much pressure on them to write the next book. When will you be delivering the next book? What will the next book be? Stephen King is just as prolific as Oates and Updike, and in some ways a much better writer. Why won’t he ever win the Nobel Prize? Because he stopped writing Big Macs and started writing Arch Deluxes. Remember when McDonald’s wanted to attract adults back so they made an adult burger? No, no one remembers this. Because it was a terrible idea. But our pal Stephen is attempting to get critical praise for his books from critics who will never like his books, and why bother, no one likes critics anyway, they are just failed writers. Look at this way, they don’t give a Nobel Prize away for Criticism, do they? Because no one reads the critics except the heartbroken writers, hoping someone will finally understand and appreciate their genius. And no one will. You wouldn’t sit with critics at the lunch table! They’re too critical! Always with the Arch Deluxes, always with the criticizing! Enjoy something unequivocally for once, you nerds. We like to read not because we want to understand a writer, but to enjoy ourselves. I read on the subway, not from the inside of some velvet envelope. I want to enjoy myself! Unless we’re reading like Jonathan Franzen, which is like eating the corn out of people’s poo. The lesson here? There’s nothing wrong with writing Big Macs. All that money is real, and people will love you for entertaining them. Will you win the Nobel Prize? I don’t know, they give it to lots of people I have never heard of. But I know who Stephen King is!

Anyway, being an American writer is not going to give you a leg up on the Nobel. They hate us, those Nobel givers. How can we convince them to give Americans a literature Nobel? Possibly they would if an American wrote a series about how awful and dumb Norway was for them. The whole Norway/Sweden thing is like Yankees v. Red Sox, except with 100 feet of snow melted on top. I think it's best to distance yourself from America and Americans. So it’s best to completely dump on Americans and the American Way of Life in your novels. None of those Brooklyn ironic writers have ever won the Nobel Prize. Pearl Buck wrote about Chinese people. O’Neill wrote about Irish immigrants. Toni Morrison about poor blacks. If Philip Roth was from France he would have won one by now. So, it may be time for you to…

GO EX-PAT

Americans living overseas always end up writing the best stuff. All that Paris sexy stuff of the 20s. Jane Austen actually grew up in Detroit, people forget that. People forget. Trust me. Just get your shit and go. Being an American is doing nothing for you. If you started wearing burkas and titled your next book Death To The Olive Garden you’d have a much better chance of getting noticed by the international critics. And not just the ones who drive those people-assassinating drones.

I always wanted to move away from America, change my name to Matthias and become a shepherd. It’s just incredibly rewarding work, watching sheep hang out all day. A great gig for a writer. I think you only have to work like two days out of the week, just hanging out on a hill watching sheep. You don’t even have to watch them that hard, just keep an eye on 'em; they’re like nature’s version of an episode of "The Big Bang Theory." And then you just gently guide them home to safety. It's the kind of work Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness once rode all the way to the top of World Literature. He was an Icelandic writer—we’ve never heard of him because no one has been able to make the definitive shepherding movie. Sheep just are terrible actors, so selfish. And without a movie you might as well be writing plays. Who goes to those? I mean, “Cats” was great. That should have won a Nobel Prize. But they don’t give prizes to pets; they’re really picky and there are so many rules.

America isn’t yet a fully formed country. We haven’t decided quite what we want to be yet. And until we do, it would be best if you stay away. Only Alice Munro has made the suburban lifestyle even approach Literature-worthiness. But that’s Canada, where everything seems magical. I think that’s because the whole nation is so close to all that ice and when the sun or the stars hit it everything glistens. Everyone else just seems to sneer at boring middle-class people. As well they should. The most interesting thing that can happen in Suburban America is, like, having an affair or losing your baby in a mall. And relax, the kid is probably at Orange Julius. All they do in World Literature is have affairs, too. But that’s not the whole story. In America having an affair is still so scandalous it causes existential grief in the lives of all the main characters. Imagine if Christian Grey from Fifty Shades Of Grey was married? They wouldn’t be able to handle all the awards that would be coming their way at 50 SHADES HQ. In Europe even if you don't want to sleep around on your spouse, you’re still going to sleep around on your spouse. Every one is just assigned a lover and away you two hafta go.

In most other places on Earth, the literature has had thousands of years to evolve. They write about really sophisticated things. Things I frankly don’t understand, I’m just a poor little American. Most of my thoughts are wasted on baseball and small-breasted women. The Literature Award mostly goes to Europeans. Or to World Authors who write like Europeans. So the more European you sound in your work, the better. If your characters could start wearing socks and sandals, forgo showers for a while and smoke even while asleep, you’ll be a winner in no time. If that’s just not going to be possible, you might have to get creative. Clearly I should have stayed in Czechoslovakia when I traveled there in 1991. That would have given me a better chance at winning. And even though most of my influences still are Czech: Franz Kafka, Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Paulina Porizkova and Chubby Czecher, people will always see me as just a big fat stupid American that drinks Starbucks all day and shoots people with my handgun rifle at night. But that’s just because I lack a certain quality that all Nobel winners have.

BE DEEP, BUT NOT TOO DEEP

I’m not a deep person. I don’t have deep thoughts. I am not contemplative at all. I have no idea how the universe works or why it does the things it does. And my experiences haven’t given me any insight into the way people live or any ideas of how we could all live better together. Does that mean I won’t win the Nobel Prize? That does not mean that! The Nobel Committee isn’t necessarily looking for the most-daring, most-experimental, nost-smarty-pantsy of writers. They’re kind of middle of the road readers themselves. But like everyone else, they want authors to make them feel smart. Can you make them feel like they’re daring and edgy readers? Then you will soon have a Nobel, my friend. Although they hate any kind of reading that is at all fun, enjoyable, amusing. It’s an eat-your-vegetables kind of vibe they’re looking for. So just fake that kind of tone for like 30-40 years. Dour, solemn, lots of meaningful death shit and lots of adultery. Adultery is like the pinnacle of Literary Themes. If you’re a guy and you sleep around on your wife in books you are deep, existential, Nobel-worthy. If you’re a lady and you sleep around on your husband, the universe will shame you. And that shame will be deep.

But not too deep. It’s not like avant garde writers win the Nobel. Sartre refused his Nobel, which is pretty punk, because he both felt that he wasn’t avant garde enough and therefore winning wasn’t avant garde enough. That’s a lot of money to flush down the toilet. But you can always tell people in bars “The Nobel Prize? Fuck that! I threw mine in the river!” Very punk. But someone probably fished that Nobel out and sold it on ebay. Money’s money, and most writers would gladly tear your heart out and seal their grant-writing envelopes with your still-hot blood if they thought it would get them a few extra bucks. Writers are lazy or they’d go get real jobs like everybody else. Instead they live in the center of a universe in which they are the most interesting character. Yikes!! Double exclamation points!!

The John Cages and Gertrude Steins of the world don’t win prizes. They earn our lip-servicey love. We don’t actually enjoy reading them. We enjoy feeling better than everyone else for reading and listening to people like Cage and Stein. I learned more from every Raymond Chandler novel than I did by reading all the weird Woo Woo Shit I could ever get my hands on. They never gave an award to that French guy who wrote an entire book without using the letter e. Who knows if it was a good book or anything. You should win SOMETHING for writing a whole book without using an e. I can barely write a sentence without using an e. I’m munching on walrus poo. There’s one sentence. It took me an hour to write that. And I’m pretty sure walrus is spelled wrong there, doesn’t it usually have an E in it? I am seeing Es everwhere. So they never give the awards to the people who truly deserve them. That’s why they should give them to you! And me! We’re not up to anything truly complicated or trailblazing. They keep giving the award to people writing in the Magic Realism form. Talking giraffes. Monkeys dressed like angels. That kind of thing. Trees that make you cheeseburgers. Magic cheeseburgers! They love magic realism because it’s safe and it makes people feel smart. And it makes for good movies. Who doesn’t like movies with talking cats? Assholes, that’s who!

So don’t get fancy. Don’t try to do too much. Use E’s, apparently. You just have to learn how to make people feel smarter about themselves without saying much. It’s like how people who don’t talk much seem contemplative, thoughtful. When they’re probably just playing Tetris in their heads. Cheat on your wives in books but not on your husbands! Has a gay writer ever won the Nobel? Maybe just Gide! Although I have my suspicions about Hemingway. So be straight and white and male and old, maybe grow a big bushy beard. And always hold your head or face in your author photos, that helps you sell 10,000 extra copies per book. Blue covers are better. People are always asking for “that book with the blue cover.” Are you writing all this down? This is some serious Nobel-prize-winning gold. Well, get a pen! Go, now!

NO TIME MACHINES, NO WOOKIES, NO VAMPIRES

Genre work might win Nerd Oscars, but if you want a Nobel your writing has to live in the very real world. With dancing pandas that can fly. But no dystopian futures. No Batmobiles. No sexy young psychotic bisexual hackers. Why on earth would that sexy young psychotic bisexual hacker sleep with that boring old reporter dude in The Girl Who Was Much Too Good To Sleep With Some Boring Old Dude? I like my women skinny and crazy. And if they might kill me at any moment, even better. But what exactly is so interesting enough to fuck about Steig Larssen’s main character, Sven McBoringssun? Nothing. Nothing at all. I haven’t read any of those books. I read the first chapter during Jury Duty and was like, this sucks. I saw the American and Klingon movie versions of the first one, and the dude was boring. And that lady was awesome. Journalists shouldn’t be characters in books. Because they’re boring. And they do boring things. Like write stories. Stieg Larssen can’t win the Nobel Prize because he’s dead. But he wouldn’t win it anyway. Because they only give Nobels to boring books that don’t have car chases or rising action or tension.

Vampires might be hot to think about. Having them bite you, suck your blood and read you The Fountainhead while you’re woozy. They’re metaphors for Republicans, naturally, The 1% living off the life-force of the rest of us. We’re delicious snacks to them, in an Alexander Pope Cookbook kind of way. But they’re not the stuff of serious literature, at least the kind of serious literature they bless with Nobels. I like the mad scramble after the award is given out when book people pretend they’ve ever heard of who just won the Nobel. “Oh, sure, Gebuha Xigglebewl! I’ve always loved her writing! She’s been a huge influence on me with her bovine imagery.”

Sci-fi. Mystery. Romance. Fantasy. Porno. Readers love them. But the Nobel prizes aren’t about the books people actually love, they’re about the books you ought to love. If you only had a little class, a little taste. Not too much! Virginia Woolf and James Joyce never won Nobels! Too weird! Too hard to understand! We just want to feel a little smarter, a little more sure of our own well-worn tastes. Not, like, actually challenged! Some of the genre work of the last half-century is among the best story-telling the world has ever know. That doesn’t mean that we should give those writers any awards. We give that to fancy authors. But not too fancy!

Why do I want to win the Nobel Prize? It would mean a lot to my parents, who had to put up with a lot of my shit. I’m probably never gonna get married and make grandkids. I could at least bring my Nobel Prize home for the holidays. We could all have a bite of its delicious chocolate. Yeah, the Nobel Prize is actually made of Swiss Dark Chocolate, look it up.

SEXY! BUT NOT TOO SEXY!

Who doesn’t love a sexy book? Nobel people. Why didn’t Nabokov, Henry Miller or Anne Rice ever win a Nobel? Their books are too sexy. Probably. Or maybe the Nobel People never read those books? The committee is not attracted to that type of thing. And you think they would be because Sweden is so cold all the time. Like in June it is Zero Kelvin. On a clear day you can watch molecules stop moving. Some people are embarrassed about reading dirty books and just never admit to it. I only read dirty books in public. Mostly Nicholson Baker’s Vox and The Fermata. They’re dirty and filthy and they’re about doughie boys like me getting some. That gets you the JimBehrl Prize, Nick! Congratulations! Will Nobel ever coming calling for actually hot books? They had that Piano Teacher book a few years ago. Not exactly sexxy vampire sluts or anything, but decent. People in serious books yearn for great sex, but never quite get all the way there to some kind of earth-shattering release. Kinda like my prom night.

They don’t necessarily reward greatness, or edginess, or talent, or great story-telling with World Famous Lifetime Achievement Awards. They reward Polish poets. Seriously. Every Polish poet ever has won the Nobel Prize. If you just say to any member of the committee “PJestem poetą i jestem z Polski” and they will just hand you one. Probably Sartre’s river-wet hand-me-down. If the Nobels don’t actually reward the most deserving work, if they disqualify you for simply having died, if it’s really just a bunch of wacky Scandos giving awards to pretty much whoever they want, like some kind of wild bookclub with global implications, then why do we pay so much attention? I mean, not too much attention. Big Bird made a bigger splash on twitter than the guy who won this year’s Nobel. I won’t even pretend I remember the guy’s name. And not just because of my white-hot envy at the man who stole my birthright. Don’t the Nobel hotshots read the internet? Do they even know what a haiku is? They’re hard to write! Every week! About the Tennessee Titans! Whatever. I can write middle-of-the-road somewhat-deep-seeming stuff too. I’ve read the first chapter of Crime and Punishment like a million times, I can do anything. I’ll be waiting by the phone! In advance of next year’s congratulatory phone call. If you’ve read this article, thank you. You’ve given me like a half-hour head start on kicking your ass! So suck it, Milan Kundera!



Related: How To Write A Love Poem


Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement.

Photo by San Francisco Foghorn.

7 Comments / Post A Comment

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Why do Americans have freedom and the Chinese have the Nobel Prize in Literature? Because they both had to pick just one.

beatbeatbeat (#3,187)

Getting to read one of these "handy guides" things on a friday afternoon can almost, just for a little while, make you forget all about how shitty the rest of the week has been. So thanks!

adriana (#1,654)

Ohhhh this totally made my night. Thank you, Jim Berhle. Thank you.

Jim Behrle@twitter (#13,157)

@adriana you're welcome

This is the best. I love every word.

Bittersweet (#765)

"I learned more from every Raymond Chandler novel than I did by reading all the weird Woo Woo Shit I could ever get my hands on." This is my new motto.

paperbackwriter (#2,844)

Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is analogous to giving an Oscar to SAG, not Alf.

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