Should Kazuo Ishiguro have won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature?

Should Kazuo Ishiguro have won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature?

I’m cynical about a lot of things, but the Nobel Prize for Literature just isn’t one of them.  An award for the best living human being who makes up stories… and people actually take it seriously?  It shouldn’t exist; but it does and it’s wonderful.  And a couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro had won the 2017 prize.

The response, amongst those poor souls that follow this sort of thing closely (myself included) has been loosely positive, but otherwise muted.  Only John Boyne in the Irish Times could find something negative to say about the award, and even that was half-hearted.

The last 10 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature

The problem I think is that Ishiguro was too uncontroversial.  It wasn’t interesting enough a choice for anyone to be either totally gushing or totally critical.

Now, I love Ishiguro.  He is a writer with a novel I would consider amongst the best ever written (The Remains of the Day), a writer whose every other novel I’ve adored to some degree, and whose most-maligned work (When We Were Orphans) I still wouldn’t consider a “bad” book.  He’s by all accounts, a thoroughly decent fellow, and definitely deserves the Nobel prize.

And yet, I’m surprised by my own dampened enthusiasm about Ishiguro’s win.

After discussing it at length with some very disinterested but patient friends, I think there are four principal cases against Ishiguro’s win:

  1. His relatively minor output: He has only written seven novels[1] and most of those novels are fairly… slight You could probably read each of his three most renowned works in one sitting apiece.  Of course, part of Ishiguro’s charm is his haiku-esque way of crystallising beauty in a small number of words, but if we were being brutal we’d have to say that the Nobel panel has rewarded a writer who hasn’t done a huge amount of actual writing.  This would never fly in the world of steel production or oil extraction. Writing less has ensured that Ishiguro’s output is of a higher overall quality, but when there are other high-quality writers who can also boast quantity, it seems a tad… unfair.
  2. The timing of the award: Ishiguro’s best output was published a long time ago, and he has only published one novel (which got a mixed reception) in the last twelve years. Whilst the Nobel is awarded for a life’s work, normally a writer whose output drops off in later years is passed over (Salman Rushdie for instance[2]).  If Ishiguro is eligible for the Nobel in 2017, he was eligible in 2005.  Probably more so.  So why now?
  3. The fact he is British: Read as much post-colonial British self-loathing into this as you like, but I did not feel that 2017 was really “Britain’s year” to win another Nobel (the fourth this century, twice as many as any other country). Of course, the Nobel is awarded to a writer not a country, so it ought to be immaterial.  But there are plenty of writers out there, equal to Ishiguro, whose writings are less awarded, and in languages that are less culturally dominant (the 54 countries of Africa, lest we forget, have only 3 laureates between them, including JM Coetzee).  Do the Swedish academy really not rate perennial frontrunner Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at all? Besides which, you just know it won’t be long until somebody links this to Brexit.
  4. The British writers who’ll now never win: There are no patterns of meaning in Nobel prize awards, and trying to spot them is futile. Anyone who thinks for example that the prize is becoming more deliberately populist forgets that the final decision is the result of unconnected individual votes from a handful of not-far-from ordinary people.  However, the one pattern that does hold true, is that the Nobel generally doesn’t like to award the same country too frequently.  Alice Munro’s 2013 win is probably one of the reasons that Margaret Atwood didn’t take the prize this year, for instance.  So, with Ishiguro’s award, there are a number of other British writers whose odds of winning have effectively been slashed to zero.  Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt, James Kelman, Tom Stoppard and even John Le Carre were given higher odds than Ishiguro of winning this year, and whilst I’m not arguing any of these writers are more worthy of the prize,[3] I’m just sad that they’ll probably not get the chance now.  I just hope Jeanette Winterson or Hilary Mantel lives long enough to claim the next one.

A rare photo of AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Salman Rushdie wondering why they weren’t good enough to win.

With all that said, I return to my starting position.  I love Ishiguro, and would happily recommend him to anyone who hasn’t had the privilege of reading his beautiful, translucent novels.

So, for those in that camp, here is my subjective and quickly-cobbled-together ranking of Ishiguro’s work from best to least-best.  Start with those at the top, and read your way down (all the way down):

  1. The Remains of the Day (1989): Ishiguro’s classic. 1989 Booker Prize winner, made into an Oscar-winning film with Anthony Hopkins.  A heartbreaking novel about the secrets and shames that butler (and a country) sweeps under the carpet.  Worth every hyperbole written by others.
  2. An Artist of the Floating World (1986): Ishiguro’s other novel on the same themes. Written just before Remains, this time set in Japan and concerning a painter of the conservative pre-war school.  Probably his most Japanese book.  Justifiably won many awards at the time.
  3. Never Let Me Go (2005): The book that didn’t win the 2005 Booker Prize, despite everyone saying it would (it lost to John Banville’s even-more-heartbreaking The Sea). Filmed with Carey Mulligan.  Lightly Sci-Fi and deeply sad, it is very widely loved.
  4. The Unconsoled (1995): The lengthy and experimental book that Ishiguro wrote after winning the Booker for It is the Ishiguro I haven’t yet read, so I’m taking my cue from others on its position.
  5. A Pale View of Hills (1982): Ishiguro’s debut, a story about a Japanese woman living alone in England. Supposedly quasi-autobiographical.  His literary style already feels in place, but the plot is thinner than his later worksIt’s possible to read in a single sitting.
  6. The Buried Giant (2015): His most recent novel, a pivot into fantasy writing, which would’ve been more popular if it had been either much more or much less experimental. His only book except his debut not to be nominated for a major award.  Still extremely worthwhile.
  7. When We Were Orphans (2000): A detective story set in China. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, but probably not justifiably so. Harshly reviewed on first release, but in my view it can only be considered “bad” in comparison to the masterpieces which preceded it.
  8. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009): A minor collection of 5 short stories on the theme of music. I made the mistake of taking only this book on holiday to Italy once, and finished it before the plane had taken off.  I spent the next week without a book to read, and that’s one of my least favourite situations to be in.

[1] Which is seven more than I’ve written, admittedly

[2] Anyone who tells you Bob Dylan’s quality has dropped off is lying.  Respond to each of their points by playing them ‘Tin Angel’ from 2012’s Tempest and smile smugly as you watch their argument crumble into dust.

[3] Except AS Byatt, who is

This article is part of my journey reading books around the world.  It is a wholly subjective account of the country and the book, written with only good intentions.  A marginally less subjective list of reading recommendations from this country is sometimes published separately.