Last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was something of a rarity in the award’s history in that the winner, Svetlana Alexievich, was favored to win by the British betting site Ladbrokes. Why bettors zeroed in on Alexievich remains a bit of a mystery, given that the Nobel tilts heavily toward fiction and Alexievich’s books are oral histories that combine fiction and non-fiction. In all likelihood, someone got their hands on the prize’s top-secret shortlist and bet big on Alexievich.
If Ladbrokes is to be trusted, the field this year is wide open. But it shouldn’t be trusted, not really, since so far people are betting on the same writers that they always bet on to win the Nobel Prize, most of whom don’t even have a chance. Pasta fetishist Haruki Murakami will not win the Nobel Prize. Bad tweeter Joyce Carol Oates will not win the Nobel Prize. The situation in Syria is so depressing that even the Nobel Committee for Literature, which loves to celebrate its own wokeness, won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, which means that the poet and perennial Nobel bridesmaid Adonis also probably will not win it. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o might have a shot, but the point is this: Murakami, Oates, Adonis, and Ngugi have led the Ladbrokes field for years not because they are contenders necessarily, but because people bet on them.
Why, then, do we always turn to Ladbrokes? Unlike the Man Booker or the National Book Award, the Nobel Prize releases no longlists or shortlists. Unlike political news, the information doesn’t leak ahead of time—whatever else you can say about the Nobel Committee, they run a pretty tight Scandanavian ship. But that means that Nobel speculation rests entirely on bookies, and the bookies are not particularly confident in their ability to set the bets. The Nobel Prize may be the Super Bowl of literary prizes, but it’s much harder to predict than the Super Bowl because seemingly anyone who has written a book could win it.
Last year, a Ladbrokes representative emailed me to explain, “We are very modest about our abilities to forecast events such as this, so we tend to let the market (i.e. our customer’s money) be the guide as to where the odds should be.” So the real reason the odds are so messed up—the reason someone who should delete their Twitter account is a perennial “frontrunner”—is because people tend to bet on popular international writers who seem Nobel-worthy or on those have been at the top of the Ladbrokes pile for years.
So let’s dispel with this fiction that the betting odds for the Nobel Prize in Literature actually mean anything. They don’t, with the exception that if someone shoots up in the odds, like Alexievich did last year, there’s a pretty good chance that they’re on the shortlist. With that in mind, I’ve reseeded the Ladbrokes pool into contenders and pretenders, one of whom may be announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 13.
Ladbrokes Favorites Who Actually Have a Shot (Maybe)
- Adonis (Syrian poet, essayist, and translator; 6/1 odds)
- Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist; 10/1 odds)
- Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright; 20/1 odds)
- Ko Un (South Korean poet; 20/1 odds)
All of these writers are plausible and deserving candidates. Adonis, Ngugi, and Ko have been betting favorites for years, and there’s reason to suspect that Ngugi has made the shortlist at least once before. The Nobel Prize has often gone to writers who have been punished for fighting for civil rights, and all three have been imprisoned, while Adonis and Ngugi have both lived in exile. And the respective styles of these three writers are, to varying degrees, regionally representative.
There’s also a statistical case to be made. A black African writer hasn’t won the prize since the Nigerian Wole Soyinka was honored in 1986, a glaring oversight on behalf of the Nobel Committee. And the Nobel Prize has only been awarded to poets three times since 1995—Seamus Heaney (1995), Wislawa Szymborska (1996), and Tomas Tranströmer (2011)—and Adonis and Ko are both poets.
As for Fosse, he’s Norwegian and Scandinavians are believed to have an edge because the Nobel Prize is awarded in Sweden and is biased towards authors who are popular in Sweden. (Alexievich, for instance, is quite popular there.) But Fosse’s output is also deserving, particularly Melancholy.
Famous, Famous-ish, and Not-at-All Famous Non-American Writers Who Are Not Going to Win
- Haruki Murakami (Japanese novelist and jogger; 4/1 odds)
- John Banville (Irish novelist; 20/1 odds)
- Milan Kundera (Czech novelist and playwright; 50/1 odds)
- William Trevor (Irish novelist, short story writer, and playwright; 66/1 odds)
- Rohinton Mistry (Indo-Canadian novelist and short story writer; 66/1 odds)
- Margaret Atwood (Canadian novelist, poet, and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Paul Muldoon (Irish poet; 66/1 odds)
- Salman Rushdie (Indo-British novelist, short story writer, and Facebook user; 66/1 odds)
- Tom Stoppard (English playwright and screenwriter; 66/1 odds)
- Colm Toibin (Irish novelist, short story writer, and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Julian Barnes (English novelist and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Don Paterson (Scottish poet; 100/1 odds)
- A. S. Byatt (English novelist; 100/1 odds)
- James Kelman (Scottish novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist; 100/1 odds)
- Hilary Mantel (English novelist and short story writer; 100/1 odds)
Mostly these are famous writers who people have bet on because they’re famous. Some have strong claims to being Nobel-ish, but there’s always a “but.” Trevor is interesting, but he’s too similar to Alice Munro, who won in 2013. Stoppard would be great, but he wrote Shakespeare in Love. Atwood would be cool, but there’s Munro again, which means a Canadian isn’t going to win for a long, long time. Kundera seems like a Nobel contender in a lot of ways, but he isn’t even the best Czech writer of his generation (that’d be Ivan Klima) and he hasn’t done good work in a long, long time. Don Paterson clearly bet on himself to win, which is something I would advise marginal English language writers to do. And then there’s Murakami, who always leads the betting and has a credible claim to being our Dickens—an internationally popular, accessible, and often brilliant writer. But Murakami is not going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
One other interesting thing to note: Last year, the popular British novelists in contention, aka Chris Hitchens’s Former Designated Drivers, were Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan; this year, Julian Barnes seems to have wrestled the keys away from McEwan, or perhaps McEwan’s Look Who’s Talking novelization was seen as being not Nobel material.
Sorry, but These Americans Are Not Going to Win
- Philip Roth (American novelist; 7/1 odds)
- Bob Dylan (American songwriter and radio host; 50/1 odds)
- Richard Ford (American novelist and short story writer; 66/1 odds)
- Cormac McCathy (American novelist and screenwriter; 66/1 odds)
- Joan Didion (American novelist and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Ursula Le Guin (American novelist and wizard; 66/1 odds)
We’re due! We really are. An American hasn’t won the Nobel since Toni Morrison won in freaking 1993. But 2016 is not America’s year. For one thing, any American who won would probably have to say something about the Age of Trump or whatever in their Nobel lecture. And don’t get me wrong: The Nobel Committee would love nothing more than to send a passive-aggressive signal to America by awarding the prize to someone who stands for everything Donald Trump opposes. But none of these elder statesmen and -women really fits that bill. That none of these Americans can really claim the mantle of The One True Great American Novelist makes it even harder.
Many of these writers are also interested in navel-gazing Great American Male questions, and the Nobel has moved on since it gave the prize to Hemingway. Roth would be the favorite, but retirement should disqualify him. The lede of this Richard Ford review of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir disqualifies him, but the Nobel Committee wouldn’t give him the prize anyway, for fear of being cussed out. Cormac McCarthy won’t win because Darkness implacable would beat down on the man as he spat violently onto the dirt. LeGuin is too popular and too genre, even though that would rule. And a nonfiction writer won last year, making a Didion victory unlikely. Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.
But Hey, Maybe These American Writers Will Win (Even Though They Won’t)
- Marilynne Robinson (American novelist and essayist; 50/1 odds)
- Thomas Pynchon (American novelist and weirdo; 50/1 odds)
- Lydia Davis (American short story writer; 50/1 odds)
- Don DeLillo (American novelist; 66/1 odds)
- John Ashbery (American poet; 100/1 odds)
- Charles Portis (American novelist; no Ladbrokes odds)
I mean, we’re due, right? We’re due! It’s been 23 years! Give us the prize or we’ll elect Donald Trump! There are a lot of reasons to believe that none of these writers will win. Robinson’s writing is too fixated on Grace and the peculiarities of American theologies. Lydia Davis has never written a story longer than two sentences. Don DeLillo may as well be retired. Pynchon is too goofy. (That said, seeing what Pynchon would do with the acceptance speech would be amazing and Pynchon really isn’t too goofy and absolutely deserves to win.) Of these writers, only Ashbery can really claim to be the godfather of an entire class of American literature, though something tells me that if the Nobel goes to a poet, it won’t be him. I recently told a colleague that I thought Portis should win and they straight up laughed in my face. (Portis is our Mark Twain.)
Joyce Carol Oates
- Joyce Carol Oates (14/1 odds)
I’m of two minds here. Giving Joyce Carol Oates the Nobel would be amazing. The response to it would be amazing, her tweets about it would be amazing. Literary awards are usually dull and often pointless, but Oates winning would set fire to everything we thought we knew about the Nobel Prize. Would we now have to look at, say, William Faulkner’s win differently? Yes, we would. But also, giving Joyce Carol Oates the Nobel would be bad, even if they made a dispensation that said, “This award does not apply to her tweets, which are bad.” In any case, if you are the person who bets on Joyce Carol Oates every year so she is always near the top of the Ladbrokes Nobel Prize list, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe, Just Maybe, This Year... Or Next Year.... Or, More Accurately, in Five Years
- Ismail Kadare (Albanian novelist and poet; 16/1 odds)
- Javier Marías (Spanish novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator; 16/1 odds)
- László Krasznahorkai (Hungarian novelist and screenwriter; 20/1 odds)
- Cesar Aira (Argentine novelist, short story writer, and essayist; 20/1 odds)
- Peter Handke (Austrian novelist and playwright; 25/1 odds)
- Péter Nádas (Hungarian novelist, playwright, and essayist; 25/1 odds)
- Amos Oz (Israeli novelist; 25/1 odds)
- Adam Zagajewski (Polish poet and essayist; 33/1 odds)
- Enrique Vila-Matas (Spanish novelist; 66/1 odds)
A lot of men! Specifically, a lot of very serious men who are widely read by very serious men. I went to a Krasznahorkai reading a few years ago and it was what I imagine attending a Rush concert would’ve been like in 1980—upper-middle class single white men between the ages of 18 and 34 as far as the eye could see. These are all deserving candidates, but this is probably not their year, and it may never be. In some cases, it’s that they are on the young side—most are in their 60s or early 70s, practically spring chickens as far the Nobel is concerned. Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that an international reputation (i.e. being popular or popular-ish in America) works against authors vying for the Nobel.
Recent history may work against them, too—a European novelist, Patrick Modiano, won in 2014, which is a significant barrier to entry. Albanian novelist and person who maybe deserves the Nobel the most in this group Ismail Kadare faces an additional barrier in that he often writes about the evils of 20th century communism and totalitarianism, a fixation that overlaps significantly with recent winners Alexievich and Modiano and Herta Mueller. But I could see at least two of these writers (my bets: Krasznahorkai and Marias) winning in the next decade.
Can You Imagine How Annoying Karl Ove Kanusgaard Would Be if He Won?
- Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian cigarette smoker; 66/1 odds)
Could One of These Australians Win?
- Les Murray (Australian poet and critic; 50/1 odds)
- Gerald Murnane (Australian novelist; 50/1 odds)
- David Malouf (Australian novelist; 66/1 odds)
- Peter Carey (Australian novelist; 66/1 odds)
An Australian hasn’t won the Nobel Prize since 1973 (Patrick White), so the continent of Australia is overdue.
Obligatory Elena Ferrante Category
- Elena Ferrante (Italian novelist and think piece subject; no Ladbrokes odds)
Sure, why not?
Who the Hell Is That and How Did They Just Win the Nobel Prize for Literature?
- António Lobo Antunes (Portugese novelist; 20/1 odds)
- Abraham B. Yehoshua (Israeli novelist; 25/1 odds)
- Doris Kareva (Estonian poet; 33/1 odds)
- Mircea Cartarescu (Romanian novelist, poet and essayist; 33/1 odds)
- Juan Marsé (Catalan novelist, journalist, and screenwriter; 33/1 odds)
- Kjell Askildsen (Norwegian short story writer; 33/1 odds)
- Claudio Magris (Italian novelist and nonfiction writer; 33/1 odds)
- Nawal El Saadawi (Egyptian novelist and nonfiction writer; 50/1 odds)
- Cees Nooteboom (Dutch novelist and poet; 50/1 odds)
- Leonard Nolens (Belgian poet and memoirist; 50/1 odds)
- Jaan Kaplinski (Estonian poet and philosopher; 50/1 odds)
- Jussi Adler-Olsen (Danish novelist; 50/1 odds)
- Olga Tokarczuk (Polish novelist; 50/1 odds)
- Yevgeniy Yevtushenko (Russian poet; 50/1 odds)
- Karel Schoeman (South African novelist and translator; 66/1 odds)
- Yan Lianke (Chinese novelist and short story writer;66/1 odds)
- Bei Dao (Chinese poet; 66/1 odds)
- Nuruddin Farah (Somali novelist; 66/1 odds)
- Dacia Maraini (Italian novelist, playwright, and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Juan Goytisolo (Spanish novelist, poet, and essayist; 66/1 odds)
- Mia Couto (Mozambican novelist and short story writer; 66/1) odds
- Eduardo Mendoza-Garriga (Spanish novelist; 66/1 odds)
- F. Sionil José (Filipino novelist and short story writer; 100/1 odds)
- Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spanish novelist; no Ladbrokes odds)
- Mohammed Dowlatabadi (Iranian novelist; no Ladbrokes odds)
- Sergio Pitol (Mexican novelist, short story writer, and essayist; no Ladbrokes odds)
- Dubravka Ugresic (Croatian novelist, short story writer, and essayist; no Ladbrokes odds)
- Dag Solstad (Norwegian novelist, short story writer, and playwright; no Ladbrokes odds)
- Someone You’ve Never Heard of From a Country You’ve Never Visited (2/1 Ladbrokes odds)
With the last three Nobel Prizes having gone to a Canadian international bestselling author who writes in the coveted “people looking at lakes” category (Alice Munro), a French guy who writes about remembering stuff that he thought he forgot but actually didn’t (Patrick Modiano), and a Belarusian woman who sort of makes stuff up and calls it oral history (Svetlana Alexievich), this year’s winner is anyone’s guess. But the underdog always has a distinct advantage. The Nobel Prize often goes to writers who have little or no publishing history in the United States, and that includes a whole heck of a lot of the people included above. And even those who have been published in the U.S. are not widely read.
But there are a lot of stellar names in this category. Antunes and Yehoshua are not as widely read in the U.S. as they should be, and both are probably the greatest living writers in their respective countries. Solstad is the Scandanivan most likely to snatch the Nobel from Jon Fosse’s hands. The Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu will win the award, but probably not until sometime in the mid-2020s. Still, many of these contenders are too similar to recent winners. If an unknown wins the Nobel, it is more likely than not that they won’t come from this list.