By Frank Moher
I may be able, in my own humble, not-worthy-to-lick-her-boots sort of way, to shed some light on Doris Lessing’s response to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Her reaction was superb:
Clambering out of a cab, she was confronted by a gaggle of reporters, one of whom broke the news to her: “You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
“Oh Christ,” she replied, making a shooing motion, as if to chase them and the information away. Then, a few moments later: “It’s been going on for 30 years. One can’t get more excited than one gets.” Then she proceeded into her modest duplex home.
Now, I have most certainly never been at risk of winning a Nobel Prize, but I have, mostly as a playwright, been nominated for various awards over the years — won some, lost most. My response, on learning of a nomination, is a moment of delight, followed by a profound sinking feeling. Oh shit. Not this again.
I first learned my lesson when, quite a while ago now, I was named a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for English-language Drama. Being greener then, I was more than delighted — I was elated. So elated that it took me a few days to consider the fact that I might not win. And if I didn’t win, would that not make me — I believe the word is — a “loser”? (And let’s have none of this “It’s an honour just to be nominated” stuff. That’s good for about two minutes.)
Well, I thought, if there’s some possibility that I might lose, and on a national scale, then there must be some recompense — some consolation prize. Maybe not the $10,000 (which was the prize money in those days), but a grand or two, or . . . something. But I looked into it, and there was nothing. Not even a leather-bound copy of your play. Just a fast ride back to obscurity. It’s true that the Canada Council did purchase a bunch of copies of the book for distribution to libraries, which would result in a healthy bump in royalties somewhere down the line. But other than that, zilch.
Which is when I began to wonder: wait a minute, did anyone ask me if I wanted to be nominated? What if I didn’t? By the time you found out about it, the nominations had already been released (I read them in The Vancouver Sun), which made it a bit late to decline. Not that I would have — I didn’t understand fully what was to come — but still. It’s as if one’s name had become a trademark that one had lost control of. Which is when the friends’ and family’s speculation began to kick in — except that it wasn’t so much speculation as “Of course you’ll win, why wouldn’t you?” To which the reply was, “Well, the other plays might be better, or their authors more respected, or someone people have actually heard of, or a dozen other reasons.” But the friends and family would have none of it. Unstinting support is, of course, their job.
Finally, some friends organized a party for the Sunday prior to the Monday announcement. I didn’t have the heart to tell them, as we celebrated in anticipation of my imminent victory, that if I was going to win, I’d probably have been contacted by now. After all, the winner would be accepting the prize in Ottawa the next day — that didn’t leave an awful lot of time to make the plane arrangements. Some little part of me thought that perhaps you were called up in the middle of the night, and Mounties were waiting at your door to bundle you off on a red-eye flight. But no. My rest that night was undisturbed.
And so I didn’t win. Someone else — whose play in fact was better — did. And thereafter the topic of my nomination became taboo. Rather as if a favourite Aunt of mine had died — no one wanted to raise the subject, lest I burst out in tears. But mostly I was pissed-off at having been put through the whole exercise. I still wanted to know where the hell my consolation prize was.
And so I understand Doris Lessing’s reaction, after 30 years of having endured being a Nobel might-be and also-ran. Even winning doesn’t really make up for having been forced to run the gauntlet. “Oh Christ,” indeed.
I wouldn’t mind the $1.4 million, though.