Your favorite author isn't going to win the Nobel Prize
Welcome to Nobel Week, better known around these parts as an annual exercise in the futility of predicting which obscure author and/or rock legend is going to win the world's highest literary prize. Only one thing is for certain: It actually won't be Philip Roth this time.
On Thursday, in a historic first, the Swedish Academy will announce two literature laureates: one for 2019, as well as the deferred 2018 winner. The prize was put off last year after an impossible-to-summarize scandal that involved, in part, sexual assault allegations against a Swedish cultural heavyweight whose wife was a member of the Nobel's selection committee.
Returning from a controversy "so serious that a prize decision [would not have been] perceived as credible" — in the dramatic words of Nobel Foundation chairman Carl-Henrik Heldin — the Swedish Academy will be aiming to reassert itself this week as the ultimate authority in determining "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction," whatever that means. There is no public short list for the award, though, so basically any living writer could qualify, regardless of if they write short stories, poems, novels, translations, screenplays, memoirs, speeches, or, controversially, songs.
Still, for many literary critics, the whole Nobel exercise is something of a "charade." The great Nobel snubs are almost a more impressive list than its laureates: Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, poor Philip Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov, for God's sake, are among those who never had the honor of accepting (or declining) the award. A litany of the laureates, on the other hand, often reads like a list of missed trivia answers: Naguib Mahfouz, Imre Kertesz, Odysseas Elytis, Heinrich Böll?
That, of course, is a damningly American thing to say, and part of why I love the Nobel is its scope; how would I ever have learned that I dislike Mo Yan without seeking out his work after he won in 2012? Still, despite the Swedish Academy's reputation for rewarding "Someone You've Never Heard of From a Country You've Never Visited," literature's top honor has a glaring and much-commented-upon diversity problem. Of 114 literature laureates to date, just 14 have been women. Former Nobel judge Peter Englund admitted in 2015 that the prize needed to resist becoming "too Eurocentric" and that the Academy needed to counteract the "drift towards ... men having it easier to relate to literature written by men" — although after his comments, the prize subsequently went to Svetlana Alexievich (Russian) and two more men, Bob Dylan (American) and Kazuo Ishiguro (British), both of whom write in English. Not exactly a radical improvement.
Anders Olsson, the new chair of the Nobel literature committee, has also made overtures about diversity, although he's been more clear: "Now we have so many female writers who are really great, so we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope," he told The Guardian this year. As it would look particularly bad if the committee handed out both awards to men, there's almost a certainty that at least one of the prizes will go to a woman writer, and the hope, also, that at least one laureate will come from outside North America and Europe.
Now this is normally the place in a Nobel literature article where I would turn to the bookies, except that bookies are completely useless and have no idea what they're talking about. Still, as if to illustrate that everything is meaningless and nothing matters, The Atlantic noted in 2013 that betting speculation actually serves as a kind of feedback loop, potentially influencing Swedish judges, so that authors who are continually floated by bookies (Joyce Carol Oates, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Adonis) actually become real contenders. Alexievich and Canadian short-story queen Alice Munro were both bookie favorites before they were named laureates, so if you want to rely on odds alone, I'm not going to stop you.
Of course, then, the natural next question is: Who are their favorites? Bookies have put poet, essayist, and translator Anne Carson at the top with 4/1 odds, and while I love her work, I'm not so sure — after two English-language honorees in back-to-back years (Ishiguro and Dylan), and fellow Canadian Munro named in 2013, I think Carson almost certainly won't be the 2018 laureate and very likely won't be the 2019 laureate either (this is my same rationale for counting out Margaret Atwood, despite her being back in the news this year for her topical Handmaid's Tale follow-up). That being said, in Carson's favor is the fact that there's been a recent poetry drought at the Nobels, the last being Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer in 2011. Still, for an author working in English, I'd be happier putting my money on the phenomenal Antiguan-American novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid.
Otherwise, look for women writers who are not working in English, such as Maryse Condé (odds: 5/1). In her favor is the fact that the 82-year-old Guadeloupean author already won the "alternative" Nobel, the New Academy Prize in Literature, which is also Swedish and required beating out British author Neil Gaiman, Vietnamese-Canadian novelist Kim Thúy, and Japanese novelist and essayist Haruki Murakami. Russian novelist and short story writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya is another name floating around in the rumor mill, having won a boatload of prestigious awards herself, while Can Xue, a Chinese literary critic and avant-garde writer, might also be a safe choice.
Of all the women potentially up for the award, though, I feel best about Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (a relatively young-by-Nobel-standards 57), who won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and whose work has branded her by some in her country a "traitor." As explains The New York Times' Parul Sehgal, "if the (notoriously unpredictable) Academy has a preference, it seems to be for authors whose work can be read as an allegory for the larger story of their nation or culture," and Tokarczuk certainly satisfies the political impulse of the award.
Then there are the usual male mainstays. Murakami is a perennial favorite, but maybe only because he's one of the few foreign-language authors that Americans actually read. "Murakami's standing as the Nobel Prize's perpetual bridesmaid is based entirely on his status as the world's most popular novelist," wrote Nobel Literature Prize savant Alex Shephard in 2017, adding "this isn't a popularity contest." But if it's any consolation to Murakami diehards, Shephard is basically best known for predicting Bob Dylan would "100 percent" not win in 2016, and, well.
Neil Gaiman, bafflingly, is also getting tossed around as a potential Nobel Prize winner, although to that I say: not a chance. Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse is another name you hear a lot when you read about the Nobels, as is the magnificent Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, although both don't do wonders to right either the "male" or "Eurocentric" inclinations of the prize. Kenya's Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is so frequently a Nobel favorite that I can't take rumors of his win seriously anymore (see also: Adonis), although he has very vocal champions and, seeing the way the Nobel doubles back on itself, this could very well be his year.
While it's unlikely the committee will do something as flashy as name another nonconventional writer a winner (despite the satisfying ring of Nobel Laureate Patti Smith), a potential dark dark horse could be someone like the text-based visual artist Jenny Holzer, or a person who writes predominantly for the screen, like Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, or Pedro Almodóvar.
The sheer unpredictability of the Nobel Literature Prize has made a fool out of more than one prognosticator though — that's half the fun. Come Thursday morning, you never know if you're going to wake up with a gasp of "who?!" or "her?!" This year, with double the chance to be proven humiliatingly wrong, it would be ridiculous to speak with any sort of authority on the matter — even if I'm sure Murakami isn't going to win.
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