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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

The Politics of Cultural Capital

Julia Lovell

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To purchase The Politics of Cultural Capital

Title: The Politics of Cultural Capital
Author: Julia Lovell
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 186 pages
Availability: The Politics of Cultural Capital - US
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The Politics of Cultural Capital - India
  • China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : thorough and interesting

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Politics of Cultural Capital really is a book devoted entirely to China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, which turns out to be more interesting than one might think.
       As the by far best-known international literary prize, the recognition and validation the Nobel Prize offers is something that has often been sought in China (as elsewhere) -- yet the limitations (and history) of the prize make for considerable ambivalence and unease as well. With no other countries preoccupied with anywhere near the same intensity with getting the Nobel Prize as China has been -- culminating in the disappointing (for mainland China) award of the 2000 prize to Gao Xingjian --, as well as China's changing position as part of the international community over the course of the 20th century, it makes for a particularly interesting case-study.
       Lovell offers a good overview of the Nobel Prize itself, noting the shifting approach the Swedish Academy has taken in selecting winners over the decades. Often criticised for overlooking the most worthy candidates (beginning, notoriously enough, with Tolstoy) she shows some of the reasoning behind some of the choices.
       It is also impossible to ignore the European roots of the prize -- and how firmly rooted in that specific tradition the prize remains --, and Lovell notes how (as is depressingly clear from the citations for the winners):

its criteria have moved from artistic universalism to national characteristics depending on whether the laureate is Western or non-Western
       Chinese writers -- like many non-European ones -- were (and are) torn between fully embracing 'Western' literature, or trying to remain what was perceived as being (or claimed to be) true to Chinese tradition -- a debate which the Nobel-ambitions brought even more to the fore. Among the interesting examples in this regard is, of course, Pearl Buck, who was awarded the prize for writing about China and the Chinese.
       Lovell looks at the changing attitudes towards the Nobel Prize in China. From Lu Xun's reaction to the suggestion that he should be a candidate (he didn't think he was worthy, or that it would be good for Chinese literature) to the Maoist rejection of such Western approval to the 'Nobel Complex' that truly arose after the Maoist era, Lovell offers a good survey of the often very revealing Chinese attitudes. Even when writers professed indifference, the prize loomed large over the Chinese literary scene.
       Finally, there's discussion of the reactions to the 2000 prize, a laureate the (mainland) Chinese could not embrace as their own (and who is now, in fact, listed as French rather than Chinese in the official Nobel rolls ...). Chinese expectations proved to be more specific: merely winning the prize was not enough. They expected a winner who reflected the image of 'Nobel Prize laureate' that they had built up in their minds, and which Gao did not live up to -- an interesting confusion of expectations and reality.
       Lovell gives an interesting account of both the Nobel Prize and China's peculiar quest for it. As a case-study it turns out to be surprisingly revealing about the 'world literary economy', and specifically China's part in it -- especially the changes from the pre-Maoist through the Maoist and now current states. The writing is not always gripping, and there are some theoretical excursions that are close to stultifying (more because of the presentation than the content), but the material is interesting enough to keep one going through the rougher patches. Some of the information could be expanded on (it comes as some surprise that Wang Meng rates just a single mention) and the way some things are put is ... odd (The New York Times Book Review is described as a 'literary journal'), but Lovell does provide a lot in a fairly short book, and there's certainly a lot of food for thought here.
       Not always as easy going as it should be, but certainly worthwhile for anyone interested in the world republic of letters -- or the Nobel Prize in literature.

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The Politics of Cultural Capital: Reviews: Nobel Prize: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Julia Lovell is a research fellow at Queen's College, Cambridge.

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