Saturday, October 2, 2010

Betting on Nobel

This year's Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced on Thursday and the various book industry news venues are posting almost daily updates speculating on which esteemed writer might win this year's prize.  While I have no doubt that every source is, well, full of it, I do love the annual Nobel Prize build-up because it focuses attention on so many great authors.  And leave it to the Brits to take pleasure in betting on who'll win a literary award.  The British bookmaker Ladbrokes posts the top odds for the world's current literary giants ( 

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'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.

  • 11/1: Haruki Murakami.  Murakami is the best known Japanese writer in America, a post-modern writer who draws heavily from Western culture and music.  He's also an avid runner and recently completed his first ultra-marathon.  What to read: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which infuses music, the fantastic, and violence around the story of a seemingly boring man whose cat runs away, kicking off a chain of event.s  Also, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami's nonfiction account of his life as a marathoner and triathlete.
  • 18/1: A. S. Byatt.  Antonia Byatt is a British writer who won the Booker Prize for Possession.  Her most recent novel, The Children's Book, was one of my favorite books of 2009, a rich, historical novel revolving around a writer and her seven children in turn of the century rural England.  It's a book about family, secrets, love, and the loss of innocence children--and nations--experience as they mature, culminating in the outbreak of World War I. 
  • 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.
  • 18/1: Margaret Atwood.  I admit that I love Canada and therefore love Margaret Atwood all the more.  Atwood writes great literary fiction, great historical fiction, great speculative fiction set in a dystopian future.  She is known for her social conscience as well as her humor and lately has become an avid Twitter user (Tweeter?  Twitterer?).  Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000 and The Handmaid's Tale is required reading in many high schools and universities.  More recently Atwood has written two linked near-future novels, Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, that predict apocalyptic catastrophe with the destruction of the environment and rampant genetic engineering.
  • 20/1: Cormac McCarthy.  He's dark, he's twisted, he's reclusive, he's Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for his post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and literary critic Harold Bloom called his novel Blood Meridian "the greatest single book since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying."  Two great places to start for readers wanting to try McCarthy--No Country For Old Men, which inspired the Academy Award-winning movie, and All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award.  Both books are superb examples of McCarthy's writing style but aren't quite as bleak as some of his other books.
  • 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.
  • 75/1: Atiq Rahimi.  I admit that I wasn't really familiar with Rahimi until last year, but one of the cool aspects of the Nobel Prize is that it does have the potential to expose audiences to great literature from around the world.  Rahimi is definitely a great writer.  Born in Afghanistan, Rahimi lives and writes in France now, where he works as both a novelist and film-maker.  In 2008, Rahimi's novel The Patience Stone won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award.  The book tells the story of an Afghani woman caring for her wounded husband who lies comatose in a bed as war rages in the streets outside.  She's angry at her husband for deserting her via gunshot wound and slowly begins to tell him about her life for the first time, releasing her frustrations at her life, marriage, and the constraints placed on women in the Taliban-governed country.
  • 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.
Who will win?  I myself think that it's about time a Canadian wins, so I'm crossing my fingers for Atwood, Ondaatje, or short story writer Alice Munro (also at 18/1 odds).  Unlike other prizes such as the National Book Award or Man Booker Prize, we won't have an inkling of the shortlisted books in advance.  In fact, the Nobel Prize doesn't reveal  finalists until 50 years after the presentation of the award.  It really could almost anyone walking away with the 10 million Swedish kroner and medal.

1 comment:

  1. UPDATE:
    Since I posted this entry, the betters have been busy, and suddenly the once longshot Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o jumped from 75/1 odds to frontrunner status at 3/1. Cormac McCarthy also leapt ahead, now up to 6/1, and Haruki Murakami is up to 7/1 odds. I, of course, would be happy if any of these people wins. They are, after all, all published by Random House, Inc. I'm anxious to learn the winner on Thursday.