Books

The Horse Race for Literature’s Top Prize

Place your bets now

While American laws take a dim view of online gambling, a couple of British sports betting sites are letting customers put money on their favorite authors. They call them novelty bets. One such site, Ladbrokes, says they're expecting a total of £50,000 ($80,000) in wagers on the Nobel Prize in Literature. While that’s a tiny sliver of their over one billion pounds in total revenues, what’s interesting are the odds their algorithm and bookmakers have settled on. [Editor’s note: The odds do morph a bit as we get closer to the big announcement on Oct. 9.]

Think perennial contender Joyce Carol Oates will finally have her year? If you’re right you could get paid out to the tune of 16 to 1. Think it’s Haruki Murakami? You wouldn’t be alone. His legions of fans have given the reclusive Japanese megastar some of the shortest odds of the pack, only 4 to 1.

But while Murakami may be tied as the favorite, the Nobel committee is traditionally known for its conservative tastes. Might they overlook Murakami’s unique fusion of magical realism, sex-obsessed protagonists, pop culture and talking cats? They gave no love to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf after all (though to be fair, those oversights could have been due to World War 2-related cancellations).

The actual winner will be announced sometime in mid-October, but it might be smart to reserve your library’s copy of surrealist coming-of-age tale Kafka on the Shore now. Because win, lose or World War 3, you really can’t go wrong with a book like that.

The unlikely intersection of the gambling world with that of high literature allows us to further round out a list of top contenders (along with their chances of winning).

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (4:1)

Tied with Murakami as most likely to win, this Kenyan may not be a household name in the States yet, but he’s rapidly becoming one of the most widely read African authors outside of Africa. His postmodernist fantasy novel Wizard of the Crow blends political satire with African folklore and mythology, all the while addressing post-colonialism and globalization. Also: It is laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a cocktail mix you’re not likely to have come across recently.

Svetlana Alexievich (or Aleksijevitj) (6:1)

Even most American intellectuals have never heard of this Belarusian journalist, but in Europe she is considered a major luminary of the post-Soviet era. Her Voices from Chernobyl chronicles one of the largest disasters in the last half century in heartrending first-person accounts. The book’s opening sequence puts us in conversation with a newlywed watching her husband literally fall apart from radiation sickness. In another sequence a soldier tells how he gave his hat to his son after being part of the Chernobyl cleanup crew. His son got a brain tumor a couple years later. If you want proof that the written word can still move you, look no further.

Jon Fosse (12:1)

Unlike some previous contenders, Fosse is not so much obscure to the Anglophone world as he is actively disliked. Despite continental Europe comparing this Norwegian playwright to Beckett and Ibsen on a pretty consistent basis, English and Americans regularly pan his works. Consider UK’s Daily Telegraph not atypical review of Nightsongs: “wretchedly pretentious, interminably boring.” According to an article from the Independent, Fosse retorts “I know the quality of my plays and English critics can say what the hell they want.”

Philip Roth (12:1)

His works have featured uninhibited discussion of masturbation, unflattering depictions of American Jews (Roth himself is Jewish), and then there’s the Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral with its sharp criticism of 1960s counterculture. Compound these controversies and then tack on the Nobel-American antipathy as expressed by committee chairman in 2008: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” One of Roth’s books is appropriately titled The Plot Against America. Another is Indignation. But long odds aside, the Nobel committee always was difficult to predict. Maybe this will be the year after all.