It's a fascinating list, but really, does the Nobel Prize for Literature mean anything? I do think that award recipients are worthy, and considering my career I'm always in favor of any event that will generate book sales. But how does one go about selecting the pinnacle of lifetime literary achievement each year, the one writer whose life work outshines the other six billion people on the planet? It can't be done, and so the award tends to rotate from country to country, genre to genre, honored as much for the political climate of the year as for the author's body of work. When Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005, speculation was that the outrage over the US invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's treatment of detainees kept the selection committee from picking the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993. It's a weird prize that lends itself to stereotyping, a single individual representing a whole group of people, a whole country. There's the Chinese guy, the Holocaust survivor, the Irish poet, the South African, the Gulag survivor, the African-American woman...it's a little insulting to the talented writers representing their demographics, but the award also calls attention to important works. Is it a good thing? Is it wrong? Maybe it just is.
So who are the bookies picking this year? The popular choice is for a poet to win since the last decade or so of winners have been novelists or playwrights. The favorite right now is Tomas Transtromer at 4/1, followed by Adam Zagajewski, Adonis, and Ko Un all at 8/1. Generally I don't read much poetry and am only familiar with the work of Adonis. For me the list becomes far more interesting with the 11/1 writer, Haruki Murakami, and then a cluster of my favorite writers hovering at 18/1. The odds go all the way to the dark horse popular "poet," Bob Dylan, at 150/1. Here are some highlights from the list of the world's greatest living writers, authors worth reading regardless of whether they ever actually go to Sweden.
- 18/1: Joyce Carol Oates. Probably the most prolific writer of literary fiction alive today, Oates not only has cranked out dozens of books, essays, and short stories, they almost all been high quality. She isn't afraid of violence and regularly pursues the darker corners of the "American Dream." She won the National Book Award for her novel them (and should have won for Blonde, a finalist four decades later). Oates also wrote my favorite short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Check out We Were the Mulvaneys, a moving, dark story about the disintegration of a "perfect" family after the only daughter is attacked one night and her father can't cope with the violation of his daughter. I also love Blonde, Oates's fictional life of Marilyn Monroe; I had no interest in Monroe at all until reading this book. The same is true for The Falls, a novel that begins with a new husband committing suicide on his honeymoon at Niagara Falls, a tourist site which also didn't interest me until JCO immersed me in her story.
- 25/1: Maya Angelou. Poet and memoirist (and cookbook writer) Maya Angelou is best known for her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her story of growing up in rural Arkansas. The book is required reading for many grade school students and I feel like it's sometimes dismissed because of the school-aged audience. The best memoirs, though, seem to come from poets--Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, and also the first of the confessional memoirs, Caged Bird. Angelou also composed and read a poem at Bill Clinton's first inauguration and is pals with Oprah.
- 45/1: Chinua Achebe. The Nigerian born Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart. The book, about a tribal man whose life is complicated when Christian missionaries arrive in his village, has sold over 8 millions copies and is the most translated work of African fiction in the world.
- 50/1: Ian McEwan. A crafter of fine characters and stories, McEwan achieved a new level of fame after the release of the movie version of his novel Atonement struck box office gold. A war story and love story, Atonement centers around a girl misinterpreting an encounter she observes between her older sister and a servant's son, leading to the young man's arrest. When war erupts across Europe, he leaves to fight. McEwan also won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam, and his most recent book is a humorous, amoral romp through global climate change called Solar.
- 66/1: Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje, another one of my Canadian crushes, won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, which was later made into the Oscar-winning film. The book is a sweeping love story set before and during World War II, and like most instances, the book is even better than the movie.
- 100/1: Peter Carey. Australian novelist Peter Carey is one of the most gifted storytellers writing these days. He's twice won the Booker Prize, for Oscar & Lucinda in 1988 and The True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001. His latest book, a historical novel based on the real-life social critic Alexis de Tocqueville, is entitled Parrot and Olivier in America, and it too is shortlisted for the Booker Prize.