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Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Forecasting the Prize is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.

2:55 PM, Oct 6, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
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Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.

Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to speculate on who’ll walk away with the Prize, or whether the academy will do well by literature or merely prove, again, that even Nobel nods. It is unfortunately true that many of the Nobel’s choices have little do with literary merit. Remember that even the linguistically versatile Northern European academics who award the prize read a limited number of languages, the bulk of which are European. If this year they choose Ko Un it’s not because they turn to this poet’s work in the original Korean for solace and inspiration.

That said, the academy’s reputation for selecting writers on account of their political relevance is inflated. The translators, publishers and scholars of relatively unknown authors from timely danger zones – say, the Proust of Yemen, the Yeats of Burma – would like the academy to take account of the political situation that makes their chosen figure significant, but the Swedes rarely comply. To be sure, they named a Chinese émigré, Gao Xingjian, in 2000, and in 2007 they chose Orhan Pamuk in the midst of Ankara’s prosecution of the Turkish novelist for speaking out about the Armenian issue. But consider that it’s been almost a decade since 9/11 and they have yet to name an Arab, passing up the Palestinian favorite Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008.

The fact is that as often as not, Stockholm goes against the grain, naming authors that are, to say the least, politically indelicate, like the great VS Naipual, 2001’s winner. In effect, forecasting the Nobel Prize for Literature is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.


At 61, Haruki Murakami may be a bit young to win the prize, and, paradoxically, the international best-selling novelist may be a bit too popular for the staid academy, but Nobel has a soft spot for Japanese prose fiction, with both Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (1994) walking away with the Nobel. The last, and only, Australian to win the prize was novelist Patrick White in 1973, so the poet Les Murray, whose long verse lines and striking cadences make him something like a cross between Walt Whitman and Thomas Hardy, is a contender.

Africa and Middle East

Among the favorites, is Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan novelist and playwright whose Third-worldist, Fanonist politics are much less frequently honored by Nobel than the punters at Ladbroke’s seem to think. Another East African candidate is Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah, who has pulled down just about every major literary prize except for the Nobel. Rounding out the Africa contenders is the Algerian feminist Assia Djebar, and the Moroccan poet and novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, who writes in French rather than Arabic.

In the Levant there’s Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, but the real favorite here is Adonis. Born Ali Ahmad Said, the Syrian-born writer who now lives in Paris is best known for his poetry and the modernist movement in Arabic verse he helped jump-start. But Adonis’ most important work is his nonfiction, including the short impressionistic essays he writes for the Arabic-language London-based daily newspaper Al Hayat. His An Introduction to Arab Poetics, available in English translation, is actually more like a work of Arab intellectual history and cultural anthropology; his, as yet, untranslated doctoral dissertation, “The Fixed and the Mobile,” is one of the most important works of Arabic prose published in the last 100 years.

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