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Who Will Win the 2019 (or the 2018!) Nobel Prize in Literature?

The only thing we know for sure is that the Swedish Academy won’t have Philip Roth to kick around anymore.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Two years ago, when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro, the institution appeared to be in the midst of an evolution. After decades of stubborn and curmudgeonly devotion to unheralded writers and capital L literature, the Swedish Academy changed its approach, awarding new modes (Svetlana Alexievich’s hybrid of fiction and nonfiction won in 2015; Bob Dylan’s music in 2016) and showing greater comfort with celebrity (it’s hard to get more famous than Dylan, though Ishiguro’s popularity likely would have disqualified him in the recent past). These changes pointed to a larger problem that many other prizes have grappled with: how to be a Big Prize in an era when audiences have become more fragmented. 

A few weeks after Ishiguro’s win in October 2017, however, all those concerns seemed quaint. Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Swedish Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was accused of serial sexual abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, Frostenson was accused of providing Arnault with the names of seven Nobel laureates in advance; Arnault was later revealed to have leaked the names, resulting in sizable bets placed on the eventual winners. The scandal overwhelmed the Academy and whatever reforms it planned to make. Arnault is now currently serving a two-year prison sentence for rape. Frostenson was removed from the Academy. And the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was postponed. It will be awarded, along with the 2019 Prize, on Thursday. 

Earlier this month, Anders Olsson, the new chair of the Swedish Academy’s Literature Committee, said diversity would be a significant priority. “We need to widen our perspective,” he said. “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature and now we are looking all over the world. Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers who are really great, so we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.” 

What does all that mean for the armchair Nobel Prize speculator? Who knows! The fact that two prizes are being awarded this year only makes things more confusing—it’s so confusing, in fact, that the betting service Ladbrokes isn’t even accepting wagers this year, although they have supplied me with a pared-down list of odds. The only guarantee is that whatever I say will be wrong. With that caveat in mind, here are some entirely too strong predictions about who has a chance and who doesn’t.

A quick note on methodology. In the past, I’ve relied on Ladbrokes odds to compile these lists. This year, I’m using both Ladbrokes and Nicer Odds.

Betting Favorites Who Actually Have a Shot 

  • Maryse Condé (Guadeloupean novelist; 4/1 Ladbrokes; 7.5/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya (Russian novelist and short story writer; 5/1 Ladbrokes; 9/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Olga Tokarczuk (Polish novelist and national hero; 8/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist and perennial Nobel bridesmaid; 9/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Can Xue (Chinese novelist and short story writer; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 

If the betting odds are to believed—and they aren’t!—at least one of this group of five writers is likely to take home a giant medal with a Swedish arms dealer’s face on it on Thursday. None write in English, which is an advantage (more on this in the next category). All have the exact kind of highbrow literary credibility that the Swedish Academy once valued. Conde, Ngũgĩ, and Can have an advantage if the Nobel really wants to be a global prize, not just one for Europeans writing novels about elderly French people looking out the window at the rolling countryside, thinking about the war and lost love. Although both Tokarczuk and Ulitskaya are European writers, their anti-fascist politics make them top-tier candidates. All five are more than deserving, but Conde is the bookies’ favorite and I think they have this one right. 

Betting Favorites Who Actually Have a Shot (Canadian Division) 

  • Margaret Atwood (Canadian novelist and sequel writer; 6/1 Ladbrokes; 7.5/1 Nicer Odds)
  • Anne Carson (Canadian poet, translator, and demigod; 10/1 Ladbrokes; 6/1 Nicer Odds)

The bookies are very confident that a Canadian is going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for the second time in six years. I am less confident. Writers working in English have won three of the last five Nobels: Dylan, Ishiguro, and Alice Munro, a Canadian who won in 2013 for her stories about people looking at lakes. Atwood’s popularity once would have assured that she wouldn’t win a Nobel Prize, but now may be an asset. A Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, moreover, would give a political resonance to the Nobel. If the Nobel Committee decides to award an English language writer, however, it will probably be Carson, who writes acclaimed and beautiful poems and translations, but may very well turn at any point to calligraphy or bamboo-carving (which New Directions will then publish in special editions).

Hey, It Could Happen 

  • Ko Un (South Korean poet; 10/1 Ladbrokes; 34/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Adunis (Syrian poet; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Jon Fosse (Karl Ove Knausgaard for people too Norwegian for Knausgaard; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Mircea Cărtărescu (Romanian novelist; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Ismail Kadare (Albanian novelist; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Yan Lianke (Chinese novelist and short story writer; 15/1 Ladbrokes)
  • Yoko Tawada (Japanese novelist; 21/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • César Aira (Argentine pamphleteer; 26/1 Nicer Odds) 

Most of these writers would be familiar to anyone who has followed Nobel Prize speculation over the past decade. Ko Un and Adunis are, alongside Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, regular favorites to win. All three are are now in their eighties. People bet on Ko and Adunis because they fit the profile of a typical Nobel Prize laureate. They regularly put out serious, stellar work; they’re considered to be the greatest writers of their respective generations in their respective languages; and both have been imprisoned and lived much of their life in exile. 

Honoring Yan Lianke’s satirical work, which has been banned in China, would represent something of a correction after giving the prize to Mo Yan, whose work hasn’t. Tawada will likely one day be seen as a frontrunner, but is still quite young (in Nobel Prize years). Cărtărescu makes his long-overdue entrance into the top-flight of Nobel Prize speculation, but he remains a dark horse. Fosse is regarded as a favorite because the prize supposedly has a Scandinavian bias (this despite the fact that a Scandinavian author has only won the prize once since 1974). Still, a Fosse victory would mean that he had snatched his brand back from Karl Ove. (The brand is “best Norwegian author of depressing books.”) 

Nope, Not This Year

  • Haruki Murakami (Japanese jogger and cat chronicler; 6/1 Ladbrokes; 11/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Javier Marías (Spanish thinking man’s J.D. Robb; 10/1 Ladbrokes; 21/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • László Krasznahorkai (Your boyfriend’s favorite Hungarian novelist—sorry, Peter Nadas;  11/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Péter Nádas (The other Hungarian novelist; 11/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Gerald Murnane (Australian bartender and homebody; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Amos Oz (Israeli novelist; 16/1 Ladbrokes) 
  • Peter Handke (Austrian Slobodan Milosevic euologizer; 25/1 odds)
  • Milan Kundera (Sixth-best Czech writer of his generation; 21/1 Nicer Odds) 

One day, Murakami is going to win and people will tweet pictures of me saying that Murakami is not going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I will deserve it when that happens. But I will keep saying it, just like Haruki Murakami will keep making entries in his running diary while listening to an Art Blakey record on a $60,000 stereo. Marías fits the bill for the Swedish Academy (full of people who think they’re too good for John le Carré and drink scotch that was made during the Carter administration), but I just don’t think this is his year. My hunch is that Krasznahorkai and Nádas would split both the Hungarian vote and the lit bro vote. Kundera, meanwhile, made his career on novels that anatomized kitsch and subsequently became kitsch, thanks to a generation of earnest high schoolers. Not sure if that helps or hurts, to be honest. (In any case, the Czech Republic should give him his citizenship back.) Given his politics, which are horrific, Handke shouldn’t stand a chance. Amos Oz isn’t going to win because he’s dead—though no one told Ladbrokes, apparently. 

These Americans Aren’t Going to Win 

  • Marilynne Robinson (What passes for going to church these days; 11/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • Don DeLillo (American prophet; no odds) 
  • Joyce Carol Oates (American Verified Twitter user; no odds) 
  • Lydia Davis (American very short story writer; no odds)
  • Joan Didion (American Joan Didion; no odds) 
  • Charles Portis (Mark Twain, but funny; no odds) 
  • Cormac McCarthy (American worn leather holster; no odds) 
  • Thomas Pynchon (America’s stoner grandpa; no odds) 
  • Richard Ford (American author of a book called Let Me Be Frank With You, about a guy named Frank; no odds)

It’s strange that the Swedish Academy doesn’t have Philip Roth to kick around anymore. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll suddenly change their opinion of recent American literature. Two years ago, all of these writers were on the board with odds ranging from 14/1 to 88/1. This year, only Robinson is considered a favorite. Bob Dylan, it seems, will be the only American writer of his generation to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, which is quite a distinction given that he also wrote the worst American book of the last hundred years. DeLillo would make a fine Nobel Laureate, given the strength of his work and its resonance with our fucked-up times. Pynchon should be given a Nobel Prize for the same reasons, but also to see if he would even show up to claim it. 

A win by Robinson would mean the first Nobel for an American Calvinist, and also the only one, since there are no other American Calvinists. Richard Ford might stand a chance as long as no one on the Nobel Committee glances at either the “Personal Life” section of his Wikipedia or the lede of his review of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. Cormac McCarthy won’t win because of the mysterious, glistening patterns in the amber current, the skittering light humming over the prairie at sundown, and also because he’s been moonlighting at a paper mill for grad students. But none of this matters because an American won’t win a Nobel Prize in Literature again until 2070.

None of these Brits Will Win Either 

  • Salman Rushdie (Indo-British novelist, short story writer, and Facebook user; no odds) 
  • Tom Stoppard (British Sleepy Hollow script doctor; no odds) 
  • Martin Amis (Christopher Hitchens’s wingman; no odds) 
  • Julian Barnes (The guy in this generation you always forget; no odds) 
  • Ian McEwan (The only living link to New Labour; no odds) 

I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced that these guys are all somehow responsible for Brexit. (OK, maybe not Stoppard.) It’s funny to think about how mad they must have been when Ishiguro won. It would, of course, be nice to see Hillary Mantel win—and she very well might, at some point. But not two years after Ishiguro and not while Boris Johnson is prime minister. 

Can You Imagine the Thinkpieces? 

  • Elena Ferrante (Italian public figure; no odds) 
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian cigarette-stained leather jacket; no odds)
  • Sally Rooney (Irish voice of her generation; no odds)

There’s No Chance This Will Happen But Just in Case

  • George R.R. Martin (American procrastinator; 250/1 Nicer Odds)

Martin should be given the Nobel Prize in Literature whenever he hands in the manuscript for A Dream of Spring. Until then, he gets nothing. 

Who the Hell Is That and How Did They Just Win the Nobel Prize in Literature? 

  • Yu Hua (Chinese novelist; 15/1 Nicer Odds) 
  • António Lobo Antunes (Portugese novelist; no odds) 
  • Abraham B. Yehoshua (Israeli novelist; no odds) 
  • Doris Kareva (Estonian poet; no odds) 
  • Juan Marsé (Catalan novelist, journalist, and screenwriter; no odds) 
  • Kjell Askildsen (Norwegian short story writer; no odds) 
  • Claudio Magris (Italian novelist and nonfiction writer; no odds) 
  • Nawal El Saadawi (Egyptian novelist and nonfiction writer; no odds) 
  • Jaan Kaplinski (Estonian poet and philosopher; no odds) 
  • Bei Dao (Chinese poet; no odds) 
  • Nuruddin Farah (Somali novelist; no odds) 
  • Dacia Maraini (Italian novelist, playwright, and essayist; no odds) 
  • Mia Couto (Mozambican novelist and short story writer; no odds)
  • F. Sionil José (Filipino novelist and short story writer; no odds) 
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spanish novelist; no odds) 
  • Mohammed Dowlatabadi (Iranian novelist; no odds
  • Dubravka Ugresic (Croatian novelist, short story writer, and essayist; no odds) 
  • Dag Solstad (Norwegian novelist, short story writer, and playwright; no odds) 
  • Someone You’ve Never Heard of From a Country You’ve Never Visited (2/1 Ladbrokes odds)

This is a rebranding year. If the Nobel Prize really wants to reclaim its former grandeur it has only one choice: Give not one but two prizes to people whose work is barely available in the United States.