Today in books and publishing: A primer on the newly minted Nobel laureate; Google's in the clear for scanning books; J.K. Rowling's reading life; scaling Book Mountain.
Get to know Mo Yan. Every year, the Nobel Prize committee issues a short explanation of their selection in literature. This year's award lauds Chinese author Mo Yan, "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." But this doesn't tell us much, and with the Nobel committee's preference for championing authors who haven't been buzzed about endlessly in American media, you'd be forgiven for reading the announcement and thinking, "Mo Yan who?" Here's your cheat sheet for holding an intelligent cocktail party conversation about the newly minted Nobel laureate
Mo Yan is a pen name (the author was born Guan Moye in 1955). His pseudonym translates as "Don't Speak," which is not a No Doubt reference but has been interpreted as a reflection of his reluctance to address politics. The Nobel is as much a political as a literary award, and many are saying Yan is too cozy with Chinese authorities. The author has said on record that he believes "censorship is great for literature creation." The situation is made even more complicated by the question of the "first" Chinese literary Nobel laureate. Official party line says it's Yan. But to the rest of the world, that honor goes to Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel in 2000 but lives in exile as a French citizen.
Politics aside, critics praise Yan for his experimental, magically tinted examination of China's fraught 20th century history. Yan's breakthrough novel Red Sorghum (1987) is set, like most of his work, in a lightly fictionalized version of his hometown, Northeast Gaomi Township. Yan shares Faulkner and Marquez's instinct for settings that feel specific and universal all at once, and he tells Granta, "those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs."
His 2006 novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out tells the story of landlord Ximen Nao from 1949 through 2000. The mystical twist is that Nao dies right at the beginning, killed as a result of China's Land Reform program. Nao's point of view shuffles through his various reincarnations, jumping from donkey to ox, pig to monkey, concluding from the perspective of a young boy with a freakishly large head. In this excerpt, Nao has just been executed and shuttled through a nightmarish netherworld. Here's how he reemerges in the world:
Everything was murky; I felt like a drowning man. Suddenly my ears filled with the happy shouts of a man somewhere:
I opened my eyes to find that I was covered with a sticky liquid, lying near the birth canal of a female donkey. My god! Who'd have thought that Ximen Nao, a literate, well-educated member of the gentry class, would be reborn as a white-hoofed donkey with floppy, tender lips!
Scanning books is fair use, judge rules. The Authors Guild copyright infringement lawsuit against universities that allowed Google to scan and upload their library books has been thrown out by U.S. District Judge Harold Baer of New York. Baer ruled that the universities were within their rights, because book scanning can be considered fair use under existing copyright law. Programs like Google Books serve people with "certified print disabilities," Baer said, and to prevent book scanning would take books away from disabled readers. "Although I recognize that the facts here may on some levels be without precedent, I am convinced that they fall safely within the protection of fair use such that there is no genuine issue of material fact," the judge writes. "I cannot imagine a definition of fair use that would not encompass the transformative uses made by defendants." The Authors Guild suit against Google is still up for appeal, but this ruling seems to predict a win for Google. [WIRED]
What Rowling is reading. Perhaps the strangest admission J.K. Rowling makes in this interview with The New York Times Book Review is that she doesn't read fantasy. If we remember correctly, Harry Potter wasn't exactly fantasy-free, but O.K. She also refrains from reading all the books Harry Potter has spawned. She did dip into "two pages of a book claiming to reveal the Christian subtext," but it made her realize, "I ought not to read any others." We learn that she's a bit of a Janeite (if she could be any literary character, she'd be "Elizabeth Bennet, naturally"), and that she and President Obama share a love for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals ("I lived in it the way that you do with truly great books; putting it down with glazed eyes and feeling disconcerted to find yourself in the 21st century"). The last book that made this reserved author cry? Her own. "The honest answer is The Casual Vacancy. I bawled while writing the ending, while rereading it and when editing it." [The New York Times]
Octavia Spencer to write middle-grade books. You probably know Octavia Spencer for her role in The Help, which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year. You may be seeing her name on bookshelves soon, though, because she has a book deal with Simon & Schuster to write two mystery books for middle-grade readers. The amazingly titled Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit will be out next fall. The publisher is describing it as a Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown-inspired tale that will fill kids with a "sense of magic." We sincerely hope the titular character is based on the Ozzy Osbourne guitarist. We'll take the radio personality, too. [AP]