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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Who will win the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature?

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There are worse things to get horribly, almost unthinkably wrong than the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The outcome of a presidential election, for one.) But there has definitely never been a worse time than 2016 to make bold predictions. That year, I published an article titled, "Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature? Not Bob Dylan, that's for sure." The previous year, I published a version of that article with the subhead "If Bob Dylan wins, I will eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks."

Bob Dylan, of course, won the prize last year, and I got dunked on for days. I believed that Dylan wouldn't win-ever-because most of the speculation surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature is fun, harmless nonsense. The Nobel Prize in Literature is often awarded to a writer that most people, even most well-read people, have never heard of, and yet there is enormous interest in the prize. This provides incentive for journalists to make claims like "Will [famous person, possibly Bob Dylan] Win the Nobel Prize?" or "Bob Dylan Should Win The Nobel Prize."

Similarly, because the Nobel Committee for Literature is so quiet and opaque (the Trump administration should study its ability to keep the lid on leaks), the conversation surrounding the Nobel Prize is guided by the betting service Ladbrokes. This means that any weirdo who thinks that betting on the Nobel Prize is a good use of their hard-earned money can change the odds. Given these two realities-and the more important reality, which is that Bob Dylan is a musician and not a writer, poet, playwright, or journalist-I assumed that the idea of Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, was a byproduct of the clickbait era. I did have one hint.

Two people who had some knowledge of the inner workings of the committee told me that the rumor in Stockholm was that an American was definitely going to win. Having decided that Dylan wasn't actually a contender and that Philip Roth wouldn't win, I published another piece asking the question, "Is it Don DeLillo's Year to Win the Nobel Prize?" Betteridge's law strikes again.

In retrospect, I, like many people, overlooked the mischievousness of the Nobel Committee. Despite its reputation for staid self-seriousness and making political statements, the Committee can be downright playful, and the selection of Dylan was a bit of a troll. The Committee answered the endless demands that it honor an American-before Dylan, the last American Nobel Laureate was Toni Morrison, who won when Bill Clinton was president-with a puckish grin. But it may not have entirely grasped the consequences of what it did.

No one has ever been able to predict the Nobel Prize with accuracy, but the selection of Dylan dramatically changed the prize's scope and reputation. What is the Nobel Prize in Literature now? That wasn't an easy question to answer before, given that Winston Churchill, Dario Fo, and Svetlana Alexievich are all Nobel Laureates. But it's certainly harder now.

My instinct is that this will be a year of overcorrection, with a "classic" Nobel Laureate (read: a very obscure writer or a consensus pick) taking home the gold. But really, who the hell knows. With that in mind, here are some baseless and entirely too strong predictions about who has a shot and who doesn't.

Ladbrokes favorites who actually have a chance
*    Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist)
*    Margaret Atwood (Canadian novelist, essayist, activist)
*    Javier Marias (Spanish novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator)
*    Yan Lianke (Chinese novelist and short story writer)
*    Ko Un (South Korean poet)
*    Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright)
*    Ismail Kadare (Albanian novelist and poet)
*    António Lobo Antunes (Portugese novelist and doctor)
*    Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungarian novelist, screenwriter)

Ngugi is a more than deserving odds-on favorite, but he's been near the top of the leaderboard for years now; Ko, who like Ngugi has spent a significant portion of his life in exile, also usually finds himself in contention. That's partly because Ngugi and Ko just seem like Nobel Laureates. My hunch is that someone out of left field will win, but considering that Bob Dylan won last year, simply seeming like a classic Nobel Laureate is a pretty good thing to be in 2017.

In the age of Trump, being the author of The Handmaid's Tale is also a pretty good thing to be. Being a Canadian, however, hurts Atwood, since Alice Munro won only four years ago. I also can't see anyone who falls under the celebrity author category winning, which means Atwood's place here is as much wishful thinking as anything else. But it would be nice!

Speaking of wishful thinking, it is probably not yet time for Marias or Krasznahorkai, who also broadly fall under the celebrity category, despite not being famous in America outside the group of "dudes who discuss contemporary literature in translation with the fervor of David Foster Wallace fans." With that said, I, uh, would like to see one of these guys win.

Yan makes the cut here because of his surprising jump in the odds, which suggests he might have made the shortlist. Kadare (whose forthcoming A Girl in Exile is fantastic) and Antunes both seem like Laureates, both are not celebrities, and both are pretty old. Fosse is in the mix partly because he's deserving (read Melancholy!) and partly because he's Norwegian.

I am as convinced that perennial favorite Haruki Murakami will not win the Nobel Prize as I was that Bob Dylan never would, so take this with a grain of salt. But Murakami's standing as the Nobel Prize's perpetual bridesmaid is based entirely on his status as the world's most popular novelist. This isn't a popularity contest and, after two unorthodox years, I can't see the Nobel Prize becoming one.

Magris's rise up the ranks (he was at 33/1 last year), like Yan's, gives me pause. His Danube is phenomenal and very Nobel Prize-y, but he's best known for his nonfiction and it's hard to see the Nobel Prize being awarded to two predominantly non-fiction writers in three years. Grossman's surge (he didn't get any bets last year) also puzzled me until I remembered he won the Man Booker International Prize, which is basically to the Nobel Prize what I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is to butter.

Adunis has been near the top of the pack for years and I'm disqualifying him because it's hard to see why he would win this year, and not any of the last few years. (This guarantees, of course, that he will win the Nobel Prize.) I am similarly conflicted about Yehoshua and Nadas, largely because I love them both very much.

There would be nothing funnier than the Nobel Committee giving the prize to Roth a year after it gave it to Bob Dylan, which surely both devastated Roth and sullied the Nobel for him. I saw the selection of Dylan as an explicit middle finger to Roth, who famously waits for the call from Stockholm at his agent's office every year. DeLillo and Le Guin remain excellent choices, but they're not going to win now. Joyce Carol Oates's chances improved not because she got better at Twitter, but because Twitter has gotten so much worse.

The Nobel Committee knows it can't award Richard Ford because of the monster he'd become. Cormac McCarthy won't win because of the skittering lights out there, on the edge of the ravine, the humming mystery on the horizon, and also because he doesn't use semi-colons. Charles Portis is only on this list because I always include him in these lists. But none of this matters because an American won't win again until 2047, when a decrepit President-For-Life Kid Rock declares war on Sweden.

Brits owned the first decade of the twenty-first century, with V.S. Naipaul, Harold Pinter, and Doris Lessing all winning. But they've been shut out ever since. Their cold streak will continue in 2017. (Also, how mad is Martin Amis that no one ever bets on him?) An Australian hasn't won since 1973. Will this finally be their year? (No. It will not.)  (excerpt)


The writer is the news editor at The New Republic. The write-up has appeared on www.newrepublic.com

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