Do We Need Literary Prizes?

Haruki Murakami’s thought-provoking new essay collection says the unsayable

The jewel of Haruki Murakami’s new essay collection, Novelist as a Vocation, glimmers with a wily intelligence, yet some may find it sobering. “On Literary Prizes” is likely to force people to reexamine a few of their biases and come to feel a bit the way you do when, after years of taking the coronation of prom kings and queens in your high school seriously, you realize that the criteria for appointing such royalty, and indeed the tradition itself, do not hold up to scrutiny.

In this essay, Murakami reflects on an experience in the early days of his long career, when he learned that two of his novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, had made it onto the shortlist for the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious. They named the prize after short story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who lived from 1892 until his suicide in 1927, at just 35 years old. Neither of the two works ended up winning, but in Murakami’s telling, the news affected others more than it did him. This failure has not bothered Murakami or slowed his prolific output of novels and stories any more than the withholding of the Nobel Prize for Literature so far has done.

The author expresses his wonder at why so many people in Japan consider the Akutagawa Prize to be important, to the extent that someone even wrote a book, briefly referenced in the essay, on the reasons for Murakami’s failure to win. He asks what would be different in his own life and career, or the world at large, if they had selected him.

Literary Prizes

A prize for the bottom line

Murakami admits that he might feel differently if receiving the award meant that a war would end or never happen, but says that in reality, such acknowledgements mean little. Authors toil on as before and their work is neither better nor worse as a result of this external endorsement, which, he suggests, has more of a financial motive for both the recipient and the granter than people suspect. The Akutagawa winner gets the equivalent of about $10,000 and the organizer, the Bungei Shunju publishing house, garners lots of PR and, one imagines, a surge in orders from thousands if not hundreds of thousands of booksellers and customers for the work of the winner and maybe others on its list.

“Its purpose may not be strictly commercial, but it would be folly to pretend that Bungei Shunju’s bottom line is not involved,” Murakami writes.

Murakami goes on to take up the question of whether the award goes to writers who deserve it. In his analysis, outstanding authors are a rare phenomenon. While he could see granting a prize once every five years, or every three if we really stretch it, to confer the award twice a year, as Bungei Shunju does, means that some scribes of questionable merit will receive fame and a minor fortune just to fill a quota.

It is not strictly within the scope of Murakami’s essay, but those of us who follow Japan’s literary scene know that there have been many problems related to the Akutagawa Prize over the years, including charges of plagiarism against the 1972 winner, Akio Miyahara, and accusations of antisemitism against another recipient, Fumiko Kometani, in 1986.

When you have two awards to dole out every year, on schedule, you may throw out literary criteria and start to look for warm bodies with any published work to their credit. Nor is this problem confined to the Akutagawa Prize. Not everyone agrees with all the Nobel committee’s recent choices, and some have questioned in particular the granting of this year’s Nobel Prize to French feminist author Annie Ernaux both on grounds of the substance of her short, superficial novels, and for moral and ethical reasons. And let’s not even get into Bob Dylan.

I’d have to go to Sweden and dress up

Maybe not all winners of the Akutagawa Prize have deserved what they got, but it is precisely the possibility of finding fault with authors on the shortlist that poses yet another problem in Murakami’s eyes. To put things simply, the issue is, who are these judges of others’ work? Infallible beings, half-human and half-deity, no doubt, endowed with an innate sense of literary excellence denied to most mortals.

Murakami says that he has turned down offers and requests to sit on literary selection committees over the years because he does not know how he would respond if someone threw the critical opprobrium that is inseparable from the job right back at him and put him on the defensive about his own writing. It’s not a position he ever wants to be in, Murakami tells us, and the honesty here will be refreshing not just for the writers among us but for anyone who has been out in the world and wondered what gave some insufferable jerk at the office the right to snub us and push us around.

Even in the debased and celebrity-sodden junk culture of America, not everyone has heeded the siren song of literary awards, Murakami reminds us, quoting Raymond Chandler, who let loose a tirade in one of his letters: “Do I wish to win the Nobel Prize? Not if it takes much hard work. What the hell, they give the Nobel Prize to too many second-raters for me to get excited about it. Besides, I’d have to go to Sweden and dress up and make a speech. Is the Nobel Prize worth all that? Hell, no.”

Murakami then discusses the case of novelist Nelson Algren, who, after winning the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal in 1974, with Kurt Vonnegut’s help, decided to blow off the ceremony and spend the night getting hammered with a woman. Algren later joked about having thrown away the medal.

The Culture of Japan

Reading “On Literary Prizes” is thought-provoking, but I wish that Murakami had gone further in examining the myopia of those who confer the Akutagawa Prize. They may not have any idea of the irony of naming the award after a figure who was singularly unconcerned with popularity, fame, and getting rich from his writing.

Maurice Pinguet’s brilliant, absorbing 1984 study of Japan’s history and culture and the prevalence of suicide among writers, whose translated English title is Voluntary Death in Japan, stresses that Akutagawa entered one of his busiest periods when he was just on the verge of death and there was no question of getting an award at some point in the future, giving vapid talks at an event somewhere, and taking a fat check for his efforts.

No, Akutagawa wrote because what he had to say came from a deep part of himself and if some people who knew him could appreciate it, then great, but he was indifferent to whether the self-anointed avatars of literary virtue saw fit to honor his last words. That isn’t why people write, if you define writing in a traditional sense as a process that involves channeling the stuff of one’s aesthetic and intellectual life and not as a commercial, PR-driven task.

In his study, nicely translated by Rosemary Morris, Pinguet explicitly contrasts Akutagawa’s stance toward his art with that of writers hell-bent on winning awards.

“Away from the epics which won all the prizes, far from the long novels teeming with positive, healthy, robust heroes oozing brotherly love, there came a day when an unknown Solzhenitsyn began his scribbling in the house of the dead. Literature really is incorrigible,” Pinguet writes.

What a beautiful phrase. Pinguet presents an eloquent account of the final days of this genius who pursued his craft for its own sake and had so little in common with those of many authors of our own time, yet much in common with visionaries of a less corporate past.

“He said nothing to the end, but wrote more and more, as if writing was stimulated by the approach of death. . . .We are reminded of the condemned man in the story by Victor Hugo, still scribbling his last few lines on the very steps of the guillotine. Every writer must feel close to that condemned man, even if his own last day lasts fifty years: all writers are in a hurry, all at the foot of the scaffold,” Pinguet states.

Such attitudes are more common in the past than people realize, whether you consider the cultural and literary traditions of Japan or those of France, argues Pinguet, citing the novels of Zola and the poetry of Mallarmé, both of which depict “the annihilation of self-consciousness at the moment of its supreme achievement.”

Akutagawa’s Legacy


In a discussion of an award named after Akutagawa, it would be criminal not to give the last word to the latter, who no doubt would have gazed in disbelief at the appropriation of his name and legacy for the purposes of a literary award designed to confer fame, money, film rights, and photo-ops on writers who never set their sights on anything higher than these crass ends.

Akutagawa’s short story “The Ball” is about a young woman named Akiko during the Meiji period of Japan’s history who faces pressures from her parents to learn French and take dancing lessons. In short, they want her to become more worldly and less a product of a Japanese milieu. Her father encourages her to attend a ball at a fancy venue in Tokyo where one of the first people to make moves on her is a French naval officer. After they begin dancing, she expresses her curiosity about balls in other parts of the world, such as Paris. But the officer tells her that balls are the same no matter where in the world you attend them. It is much the same with literary contests and prizes, the reader infers.

But in a world where the prize named after Akutagawa came into existence in 1935, no fewer than thirty-four years after the Nobel Prize for Literature, the story that speaks most directly to the pernicious influence of foreign customs may be “Tobacco and the Devil.”

In this parable, Akutagawa traces the history of tobacco’s introduction to Japan. By various accounts, tobacco made its way into the nation during the Tembun Period (1532-55), the Bunroku Period (1592-96), or the Keicho Period (1596-1615), and its importers were either the Portuguese or the Spaniards, but Akutagawa holds out for our consideration a different legend, according to which the Catholic priest St. Francis Xavier brought the Devil to Japan and allowed him to work his mischief.

In “Tobacco and the Devil,” the latter originally considers scratching posts with one of his nails and turning them into gold in order to tempt people. After this does not work out, the Devil goes about planting tobacco across the length and breadth of his fields. When a cattle-dealer passes by and grows curious about the crops coming into bloom, with their peculiar scent, the Devil becomes cagey and refuses to provide concrete information. But the Devil is not the only clever one here. On a subsequent evening, the cattle-dealer sets loose one of his cows on the Devil’s property, provoking the Devil to open a window and demand to know what the cow is doing running riot in his tobacco field. Busted. The cattle-dealer figures out the means of temptation put to use by the Devil.

In 2022, the question remains of how many Japanese will come to decide that literary prizes are a satanic imposition on a people once concerned with literary excellence for its own sake.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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