Handicapping the Nobel Prize in Literature

Who Will Win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Those intrepid bookies at Ladbrokes, the venerable British oddsmakers, recently released the first list of favorites for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, to no one’s surprise, Japanese author Haruki Murakami heads up the list at 7/1 odds. Perhaps more surprising is the inclusion of Bob Dylan on the list, this week in second at 10/1 and surging. (Those pranksters even threw in E.L. James of 50 Shades of Gray fame at 500/1 just in case you feel like throwing away your money.)

Figuring out what the Nobel Committee is thinking is always a bit of a challenge and I don’t envy the Ladbrokes handicappers. Anyone remember Dario Fo? He won in 1997, although for the life of me I can’t think of one of his books.. Equally perplexing to many, especially those of us in the U.S., were the recent choices of Herta Müller in 2009 and J.M.G. Le Clezio in 2008–not to mention last year’s winner, the rather obscure Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

Now it’s all well and good that the Nobel Committee wants to broaden the literary horizons of the Anglophone world, but Tranströmer? Really? It’s hard to think that John Updike, or for that matter Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy, don’t have a more worthy body of work. We get it, Horace Engdahl! Engdahl of course was the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who in 2008 said “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

I’ve lived in Germany and France, and let me tell you: more Germans and French have read, not to mention heard about, Updike than Tranströmer. But at least there’s still time for Roth and McCarthy (both at 16/1 odds), the two highest American authors on the list if you don’t count Dylan (and I don’t).

Of course, the Academy has a history of denying the Prize to such screamingly obvious authors as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, while rewarding their forgettable contemporaries Karl Adolf Gjelllup, Ivan Bunin, and Saint-John Perse (yes, that’s his real name). I mean come on: Joyce! Given this, it’s hard sometimes to remember why we care about the Nobel at all. Or as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an article in last year’s Salon, “America wonders how you say ‘clueless’ in Swedish.”

Last year, the smart money assumed that a poet would win, given that 1996 was the last time a pure poet (Wisława Szymborska) won. The Syrian poet Adonis (sometimes spelled ‘Adunis’) was briefly the favorite, and other poets such as the South Korean Ko Un, and Australian Les Murray all were up there at the end. In fact, Tranströmer suddenly surged in the betting at the very last minute last year, closing at 4/6 odds: it’s a good bet (pun intended) that word of the decision leaked out. If I were on the Committee, I’d have seen who of my fellow colleagues was suddenly driving a new car that year.

Murakami aside, 2012 might just be the year for Africa or the Middle East, Adonis and Israeli author Amoz Oz are in the thick of it, followed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. Somewhat surprisingly, Thiong’o (also known as James Ngugi) has led the better known (at least in the U.S.) Chinua Achebe, but this year they’re both given 20/1 odds, at least for now. The last African writer to win was Coetzee in 2003 and before that Nadine Gordimer in 1991, but it would be nice to see a non-white, non-South African, win.

Personally, I’m rooting for either Murakami or Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom. Murakami has been at various points in the past years the odds-on favorite, but according to the rumors, he’s considered a little too popular (whatever that means) by the judges. We’ll see if the wider release this year of IQ84 helps or hurts his chances.

Nooteboom (Roads to Santiago, The Following Story) is probably unknown to many readers, but he’s one of the best Dutch writers around, especially after that Harry Mulisch (Discovery of Heaven) passed away this year. And, perhaps surprisingly, no Dutch author has ever won. I don’t think he’ll win, unfortunately: ironically, he’s neither quite obscure enough to shock Americans, nor famous enough (ike a Vargas Llosa. Still, a Netherlandophile like myself can dream.

Paul Houseman is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His essay Ugly Guys Try Harder: Why Not to Date a German Nurse was published in Frontier Pscyhiatrist in July 2011. His work has also been featured in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Smew, and on his mom’s refrigerator.

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