John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize www.nobelprize.org. He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:
“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”
Comment by Janice Harayda:
Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.
But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?