I don’t know who’s going to win the Nobel Prize in literature. But the British betting site Ladbrokes has been taking bets, and American Don DeLillo is making a last-minute surge in the standings, rising from 66/1 odds earlier this week to 4/1 odds, putting him in fourth place.
Do the bettors know anything? Sometimes, it seems like they do. In 2104, oddsmakers placed French novelist Patrick Modiano in fourth place, and he won the prize. Last year, a Belarusian who pens oral histories made a surprisingly strong showing in Ladbrokes’ betting — nonfiction is rarely recognized by the Nobel committee — but Svetlana Alexievich went on to win.
Then again, for the last couple of years, Bob Dylan has been on the betting list for the Nobel Prize in literature. The idea holds little truck with readers — Alex Shepherd writes about the possible winner, “not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure” at the New Republic — but the musician is fun to bet on all the same. Currently, Dylan, who is between weekend performances at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, is tied in eighth place with celebrated Spanish novelist Javier Marías, with odds of 16/1.
With all this back and forth, who’s in first place? That would be Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan playwright, novelist, journalist and memoirist who currently teaches at UC Irvine. Thiong’o is best known in America for his novel “Wizard of the Crow,” which he wrote in his native Gikuyu and translated into English. In Kenya, Thiong’o was once imprisoned for his writing and, after living in exile, was attacked by gunmen upon his return. Although he’s 78, he continues to publish; his next book, the memoir “Birth of a Dream Weaver,” hits shelves Oct. 25.
Will Thiong’o having taken refuge in America work against him? It’s possible. In 2008, then-Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl declared American literary culture "too isolated, too insular,” saying, “They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The statement caused an uproar, but the fact remains that no American has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature since 1993, when it went to Toni Morrison.
Engdahl’s point was that it’s a big wide world of letters. Current favorites in Ladbrokes include Japan’s Haruki Murakami and Syria’s Adonis, tied for second place with 6/1 odds. Murakami is best known for his surrealist fiction and is Japan’s top-selling novelist; Adonis writes poetry, particularly long form, and has lived in exile for decades, mostly in Beirut and Paris.
Perennial favorites on the list are South Korean poet Ko Un, Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, Czech expatriate Milan Kundera, Hungarian writer Péter Nádas, Argentine author César Aira, Israeli writer Amos Oz, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie and Irish novelist John Banville.
Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, who is little known in the U.S., is also among the top contenders. Newcomers to the list include Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes, Estonian poet Doris Kareva, German scholar Navid Kermani and Chinese satirist Yan Lianke. An intriguing possibility is Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose work is notoriously challenging but who recently won the Man Booker International prize — racking up other awards can be seen as a path to the Nobel.
Two candidates on the list would present an interesting challenge for the Nobel committee, which expects the winner to attend the presentation ceremony and give a robust acceptance speech. One is Elena Ferrante (odds currently 50/1), the bestselling novelist who writes under a pseudonym but was said to be unmasked this fall by an Italian journalist. With her identity (possibly) revealed, would she show up? Similarly, American novelist Thomas Pynchon (odds also 50/1) has worked in seclusion for decades, and sent a jokey substitute to the National Book Awards when “Gravity’s Rainbow” was in contention. Would he appear in public for the Nobel?
American favorites who would, presumably, be happy to jump on a plane to Sweden for the Nobel Prize include Philip Roth (odds 12/1), Joyce Carol Oates (odds 20/1) and Marilynne Robinson (odds 50/1).
And science fiction fans have two major figures appearing on the list: Ursula K. LeGuin (odds 50/1) and Margaret Atwood (odds 66/1).
Who will win? Who can say? But there’s still time to get your bets in; the prize will be announced Thursday at 4 a.m. Pacific Time.