Let there be no doubt that the Nobel Prize is the prize much sought after in all fields that the prize is awarded. Let there be no doubt also that Mr. Achebe would have been glad to have received it. But it is also clear that he won a prize much higher than Nobel.
Nobel literature award is selected by a team of distinguished, learned, detribalized, scholars based in Sweden who follow established standards in selecting a book and an author from nominated list. They analyze each work for quality and impact and make a recommendation. Yes, these people have biases but their biases seldom show in the final result. I do not know how many men (and hopefully women) in the team, but there are not likely to be more than 100 of them. I can therefore say that they are a small number of people. There is a higher order than the Nobel Team.
This is the team composed of all readers in the world. Segments of this order include university literature professors, library directors, high school literature teachers, individuals who read for pleasure. Language translators could be counted in this order also. These decision makers select and award the “Peoples’ Prize.” Mr. Achebe won this much higher award.
His fans should be content and not worry about those who unceasingly tell us that Mr. Achebe did not win Nobel as if that were the highest literature award.
Understand that Achebe sold 14 million books. This means that 14 million dipped their hands into their pockets and voted with dollar bills. They put their money where their mouth was. Almost all reputable libraries in the world have a copy of Achebe’s work. One can assume that at least 10 people read each of the library books. I have a copy (actually all the copies of his books). My copy has been read by my wife and five children and have been borrowed by at least five friends. That would be 12 additional readers. But let us say that the average reader of each individual copy is just two. One can easily estimate that over 50 million people have read Mr. Achebe.
What greater honor can one aspire to?
Mr. Osuji in his latest criticism of Achebe’s works asserted that Mr. Achebe did not write a book but pamphlets by which he meant that the quantity of words in Achebe’s books did not meet his standards. I was amazed that a scholar and a teacher would make such a puerile statement. I have always held the view that the quality of what one says is far more important than the number of words used to say so. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is one of the most powerful and remembered speeches in history and yet it is also among the briefest. Does this teacher first count the number of words in the essays of his students’ before he awards an “A” or a “D”? I looked at a list of “Great Books” and was surprised by the dominance of what Mr. Osuji would classify as pamphlets. It had most of Shakespeare’s books most of which have fewer number of words than Achebe’s books. It had “The Prince” which is about half the number of words in any Achebe book. And they are considered “Great Books.” I admit that Homers’ “Iliad”, which I just finished re-reading, is among them.
This is a tome but tomes were the exceptions.
Another point raised by Mr. Osuji is that Mr. Achebe was not a creative writer at all; that he was a mere re-teller of old wives’ tales. This point makes me wonder if Mr. Osuji has followed up on any book beyond reading the story. Most stories were stories that have been around before an author takes the existing story and creatively retells it in such a manner that it captivates his and future generations. This is what creativity is. It is not necessarily inventing a new story alone. In Achebe’s case I am not even aware that any of his stories had ever been told before him. His could the original story told creatively to captivate 50 million readers worldwide and attract a myriad of translators.
Another critic observed that Achebe might have been traumatized by the Biafran war. There might be some truth to this. Anyone who lived in Biafra or even in Nigeria and saw what was happening to the Biafrans and was not traumatized may not be human after all. I was. I am just realizing that I may have suffered from what is now known as PTSD without knowing it. Many of us went through hell and Achebe was not different. However his not writing for a while could also be attributed to the accident he was involved in and which kept him on a wheel chair for the rest of his earthly life.
He overcame that too.
I am not qualified to defend Achebe’s works as I am just a general reader and not a student of literature. There are many who are much more capable of depending his works.
Of course the most capable defender of Achebe’s works are Achebe’s works themselves.
Benjamin Obiajulu Aduba
June 9, 2014