There are few greater honors for the writer than to meet the King of Sweden. This, of course, comes after one wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, joining the ranks of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Bellow and Neruda. The King of Sweden. The King of Sweden. On October 7, Joyce Carol Oates went to sleep, and more than likely she was dreaming of the King of Sweden. She is a stoic woman, certainly, and having only had one class with her in my brief Princeton tenure, I cannot responsibly say that I know what she was thinking on that evening. But the thought of such acknowledgement and veneration surely cannot have totally eluded her thoughts. She cannot only have been thinking of her advanced fiction class the next day or her recent marriage or the weather patterns in these darkening days of fall. No, it is likely that she was thinking about it, the little gold medal and the big headline on the Times website, and the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, the only son of the late Prince Gustaf Adolf.
She and I awoke on the eighth to see that the King would be meeting with Herta Müller, a Romanian turned German, who got the prize for being what the committee described as someone “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The dispossessed. I feel like I’ve lost something. Respect for the Nobel, for one. Did the Swedes not read them? There is a cast of characters aimless and seeking possession! There is a cast in a series called the Wonderland Quartet that is anything but wonderful. What rubbish then, that the committee would award dear Herta with an award she was obviously no more qualified to win than our Joyce, who once in workshop asserted after a particularly odd phrase of mine was reread and interpreted several times that I “had been hit by a ghost” and had put the wound there on the page. And how I died at hearing that. What wonder it was to hear something so odd and profound, so strange and imaginative. And what did Herta ever do? Did she teach? Did she explore the romance novel genre under a pseudonym? No, of course not. But Sweden is a socialist place, after all, and socialism is destructive and wretched and makes them terrible critics of literature, apparently. And the King, where is the King in all of this? Surely he cannot be busy. Surely this comes first, this day when his country’s name is shouted from all the corners: extra, extra, read all about it: Sweden robs Oates, King greets Herta. Some headline.
But I suppose it is hard to criticize the committee too much. After all, they made it quite clear the next day that they were never impressed with Oates’ massive catalogue of works when their Norweigian brothers announced that they awarded our President (Obama, not Shirley, another painful smack against our community) the Peace Prize after nine months in office. He’s hardly out of the womb, and he is as honored as Mandela who was put in jail. Oates is just too good, too prolific, I find myself reasoning. She intimidated the Swedes. They couldn’t handle her. Sweden just wasn’t ready for the gravity she brings.
It’s raining now on a Saturday. I recall writing stories for Joyce that I desperately tried to make real, because she was obsessed with the verisimilitude of our work. How real was the snow on the ground, how tangible were the lips of the lovers our characters kissed? But all I feel is a sense of dejection, and that this rain, this melodramatic rain that reflects the darkness in me, that sputtering out of hope, is almost too unreal, and I could never put it on the page and hand it to Joyce, for she would cast it away, call it unbelievable and wish I saw things more clearly, without colored lenses. The committee could learn from that. They surely read Herta’s writing with rosy plastics in front of their irises, and Joyce’s with such dark, black tint that it looked like every page was printed on top of each other. They couldn’t see through all that. And they never tried to, I am certain. But next year is Oates’ year, because she will have new books and new things to say, and Herta will have hers and the King of Sweden will have one hundred letters from me and the assertion that I will orchestrate a mass boycott of IKEA if Joyce is not at his table this time in 2010. I mean it, dear King. In the meantime, read Blonde and tell me Marilyn Monroe is not made real on those pages.