Murakami: Master or Marketing?
Two contrasting views on the literary giant’s potential Nobel nomination
Oct 10, 2012 | Issue: 968 | 3 Comments | 5,611 views

Robert G, via Flickr Bert Werk


See Metropolis’ review of 1Q84 here


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by Miho Matsugu

When I teach Haruki Murakami to undergraduates in Chicago, his work always inspires breakthroughs. Students struggle to see Kawabata Yasunari’s work as anything more than a rare antique; they experience involuntary discomfort with Oe Kenzaburo’s political avant-garde. Upon reading Murakami, they are “sucked in,” as one student put it. They’re not merely engaging in praise or worship; they read his literature analytically. His work broadens their thinking and produces thoughtful conversations about difficult issues: abortion, suicide, cultism. He is a monumental writer for their time, one whose language—through translation—transcends the boundaries of the archipelago.

His nonfiction work is particularly memorable: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2001) shows how walking past things we pretend not to see generates “a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen.” He lays bare that which produces an “unnamable dread, a disgust beyond” our understanding. His memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009), demonstrates his own desire to gaze unflinchingly: “Once when I was around sixteen and nobody else was home, I stripped naked, stood in front of a large mirror in our house, and checked out my body from top to bottom. As I did this I made a mental list of all the deficiencies.”

Some prominent Japanese literary critics detect a worrisome ideological apparatus beneath Murakami’s prose—one that relies on, even promotes, the injustices fundamental to a modern, capitalist status quo. University of Tokyo Professor Komori Yoichi’s critical study, On Haruki Murakami: a Close Reading of Kafka on the Shore (2005) accuses Murakami of effacing historical trauma by shrouding it in layers of seductive metonymy. The text conflates warfare with personal violence, argues Komori, and the killing of cats is confused with the killing of people; a reference to Adolf Eichmann’s trial is invoked to draw a metaphorical connection between the Holocaust and the protagonist’s feline bloodletting. Komori argues that Murakami invokes a collective memory of violent crimes committed by youth, of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then directs readers to a place where they can live in comfortable denial of injustice and violence.

But how can we truly know the ideological effect of a piece of literature on our political consciousness? Writing about the same novel, John Updike described Murakami as “a tender painter of negative spaces,” and said that “Beneath his feverish, symbolically fraught adventures lies a subconscious pull almost equal to the pull of sex and vital growth: that of nothingness, of emptiness, of blissful blankness.”

The very fact that such dissimilar interpretations of the same work exist suggests Murakami is controversial and provocative, two attributes common to great writers. Regarding Murakami’s alleged trivialization of the Holocaust, I would point to his critical interest in the intersection between contemporary Japan and Nazi Germany. In Underground, where he discusses the way the Japanese public averts its eyes from the Aum cult, Murakami writes: “Very likely, German intellectuals during the Weimar period behaved in a similar fashion when they first saw Hitler.” Komori Yoichi also criticizes Murakami’s marketing scheme for Kafka on the Shore, which relied on mass emails and included a 9/11 publication date. These tactics constitute a critical part of Murakami’s literary experiment—the willingness to address himself to the contemporary. Komori notes that Kafka was in many ways a response to 9/11. Similarly, Murakami has said that 1Q84 (2011), which has him poised to receive the Nobel, responds to the collective psychic landscape that has emerged in the last 11 years.

One thing is certain: Murakami’s novels are commodities. They bring profit to the wealthy. They are well-received by educated, urbane young professionals. To reach a global audience, Murakami has worked closely with a select group of translators, editors and publishers. This ruffles critics who see him as a businessman first and author second. But such criticism is misplaced. Kawabata once said that great works amount to nothing if there is no space to publish them. He too was an enthusiastic marketer, not only of his own work, but of Japanese literature in general. Murakami’s is a similar variety of literary entrepreneurship.

Alfred Nobel’s will indicates the Nobel should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” What is an ideal direction? It has been said that Murakami’s literature is a source of soothing in our fevered political and economic times, and in recent years the endings to his novels have grown hopeful and redemptive. Meanwhile, the anxiety and fear that underlie so much of life in the early 21st century have reached a hideous boil. Some of us have recognized this, and cannot accept that Murakami writes—at least in part—for those who have not. Yet in positioning his literature at the abrupt edge of these questions of consciousness, Murakami has crafted a more honest portrayal than his detractors—one that implicates us all.

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by Dreux Richard

Two elements of Murakami Haruki’s work make him an attractive Nobel candidate: the translational nature of his prose and the liberalism of his non-fiction projects. Both rely on credulity toward his veneer of multiculturalism and political relevance, and a willingness to refrain from comparing him to the handful of less famous Japanese authors who exceed him in both respects. His success, in fact, does not mark the triumph of transnational aesthetics, but rather the continued hegemony of American publishing interests who understand that English readers have little tolerance for the foreign.

Many of Murakami’s detractors, however, offer only the stodgy nationalism that Murakami isn’t a demonstrably “Japanese” writer. This critique, once directed at Oe Kenzaburo, is wrongheaded. But Oe’s and Murakami’s fiction are not commensurate in ethical density, nor do their novels produce the same effect in readers. Oe’s moralism is empowering and emancipatory. Murakami, rightly dubbed “a pornographer of depression,” produces stylized stultifications of the spirit, as rich in lassitude as they are in quaffable prose. Many of Japan’s foremost literary critics (Karatani Kojin and Komori Yoichi included) have faulted Murakami’s writing for its shallow, self-indulgent gloss on history and trauma.

Murakami’s sanctimony toward the favored writers of American publishing’s pyramid scheme (wherein aspiring authors outnumber casual readers) has endeared him to English professors and other mid-level tastemakers. But he has avoided the difficult, unrewarding work that surmounting cultural barriers demands: writing multilingual texts that defy commercial literary paradigms. This has been left to Tawada Yoko, Levy Hideo, Mizumura Minae, and Lee Yangji, among others, all of whom have labored under the sign of Japan’s last Nobel-caliber author, the late Nakagami Kenji.

Comparison with Levy Hideo offers the starkest illustration. Much of Levy’s work is set in China’s Henan province, where he has pursued what little humanity remains in a nation beaten senseless by a cruel march toward prosperity. Levy’s China writing includes its share of trilingual moments and several critics have suggested that the multilingual wrinkles in his short story, “Ten-an-mon,” (“Tiananmen”) may have cost him the Akutagawa Prize.

When Senkaku tensions overflowed, a much-anticipated public dialogue between Levy and Yan Lianke was cancelled. Levy thereafter gave an expansive, vulnerable interview to the Tokyo Shimbun about the future of Japan-China relations. The interview matters because Levy has dedicated a decade of literary yeoman’s work to examining the fragile pith of Chinese culture.

When Murakami weighed in on the Senkaku dispute via the Asahi Shimbun, it was to warn against imbibing the “cheap liquor of nationalism.” However compelling the sentiment, it amounted to a truism from an author who has sacrificed little for the sake of Japan-China understanding. He has made a habit of such gestures, having ridden to the rescue after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Aum attacks, thereby claiming—almost exclusively—whatever goodwill such catastrophes generate for savvily-marketed writers.

Murakami’s pronouncements matter because he’s Murakami, “one of the world’s foremost novelists,” as AFP put it. But if this is why the English language press latched onto Murakami’s comments while overlooking Levy’s interview, then we’ve arrived at the sad intersection of literary authorship and Oprah-ism, wherein the media’s limited attention span necessitates the selection of a single, self-perpetuating fame figure for whom publicly-disseminated thoughtfulness is reserved.

Credit The New Yorker and other well-moneyed American publishing interests. Murakami—as English readers (including the Swedish Academy) know him—is their fabrication. Translator Stephen Snyder’s work traces the shaping of Murakami’s brand by Robert Gottlieb and examines how Gottlieb’s successor, Deborah Treisman, has fixated on conjuring “the next Murakami.” To the credulous, this is an effort to keep Japanese literature in The New Yorker’s tent; to the observant, it’s an attempt to construct an exotic, saleable façade for American fiction’s tired idioms (the lack of a viable American Nobel candidate is an exhausted topic). As Snyder has noted, Murakami’s American investors set out to turn him into a “literary version of the Sony Walkman and the Honda Civic.”

This would be fine if it resulted in the publication of more Japanese literature. But Gottlieb and Treisman haven’t given us Japanese literature. They have given us Treisman and Gottlieb. Their fingerprints are omnipresent in the New Yorker versions. Alterations are not necessarily wrongful; both previous Nobel laureates from Japan were rendered by activist translators (Edward Seidensticker and John Nathan). But Nathan translated Oe with autonomy and was published by the insurgent Barney Rosset. Now comes the age of pander, where authors provide the raw cultural and biographical materials necessary to make the publishing industry’s pet aesthetics marketable. Treisman—who “made” Ogawa Yoko—withdrew The New Yorker’s interest in one of Ogawa’s stories after the author declined to rewrite the ending.

Awarding Murakami the Nobel Prize therefore wouldn’t amount to a recognition of Japanese literature’s continued vitality, but to a vindication of American publishing’s marketing apparatus, not only as chief arbiter of which Japanese authors are read outside Japan, but as the world’s dominant literary and cultural tastemaker, capable of dressing its imperialism in increasingly ridiculous costumes—a New Yorker writer translated by a Harvard professor as paragon of contemporary Japanese literature.


See Metropolis’ review of 1Q84 here

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  • an expat

    The idea that awarding Murakami the Nobel Prize “wouldn’t amount to a recognition of Japanese literature” is absurd. It’s awarded to an individual, not a country.
    It reminds me of my younger, backpacker years listening to people say they wished to go find the “real Bali” or “real China,” conveniently ignoring that Denpasar and Shanghai are equally “real” to the millions that live there.

    The influence that Publishers have is enormous, but seems off-based here.

  • Secret Fornow

    an expat makes a good point. Since when did this become a national award? Sure, some countries like to have the bragging rights, but most people view the winner as an individual, not as a representative of his or her country. I think both writers make valid points, but I’m going to go with Ms. Matsugu in that the effect he has on readers, be it in Japanese or English, is unmistakable. He didn’t win the prize, but the debate will likely continue. I read Murakami because I enjoy his stories and as long as I continue to enjoy them, I don’t care about the American publishers.

  • Dave

    Richard’s critique is fun to read, but so cynical one finds it hard to take seriously. He hates on the publishing industry, literary marketing and all external markers of success (since when is the New Yorker the stamp of death for serious literature?), but he says very little about Murakami’s actual literary output, just a few disses, including a weird indictment of the world press for not paying more attention to Levy Hideo after the sarin gas attacks. To take one quick peek outside the narrow lines he has drawn, in Taiwan, sales of Murakami in Chinese translation are huge and his cultural resonance is enormous. Taipei has cafes named Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore. Should we blame the New Yorker and the evil American publishing cabal for that too?

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