Four years ago, I made the worst prediction of my professional life. No, not that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump—though I was pretty confident of that, too. Instead, I wrote that Bob Dylan would not win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 and, furthermore, that he would never win it—and that if he did I would eat my vinyl copy of Blood on the Tracks. (For the record, I have yet to eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks, though I promise to eat it, for real this time, if Donald Trump wins the Nobel Peace Prize this Friday.)
My Nobel Prize predictions have not gotten much better. Kazuo Ishiguro—the Japanese-English writer of novels of intricate subtlety dedicated to exploring one of literature’s great themes—Britain’s awfulness—won in 2017. Ishiguro wasn’t even mentioned in my annual preview that year, and we’re talking about a feature that typically mentions about 100 potential honorees. I did include 2018’s Nobel laureate, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, as a favorite, but then again I also wrote that 2019’s winner, Peter Handke, “shouldn’t stand a chance given his politics, which are horrific.”
Every year I publish this preview, and people bet real, actual money based on it. If you are reading this because you want to bet on the Nobel Prize in Literature, please—and I can’t stress this enough—don’t do that. Buy something useful instead, like a lottery ticket. Or bet on the Nobel Prize in Literature, just do the exact opposite of what I say.
The last five years have been tumultuous for the Nobel Prize. Attempts at breaking new ground—with Dylan being the most prominent example—suggested an openness to a more expansive interpretation of literature. At the same time, the prize has been beset by scandal. The 2018 prize was postponed after the husband of one of the Nobel Committee members was accused of serial sexual harassment and abuse—as well as leaking the names of the winners to bettors. (He would go on to serve a two-year prison sentence for rape.)
Last year, the then chair of the Swedish Academy’s Literature Committee, Anders Olsson, went on a P.R. blitz promising that he and his fellow judges were aware of the prize’s dismal record on gender and race, as well as its perceived stuffiness and Eurocentrism. The Nobel Prize was subsequently awarded to two Europeans, one of whom has been trailed for years by accusations of genocide denial based on his writings about the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
The big question hanging over the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature is the same one that dogged last year’s prize: Why did the Swedish Academy decide to honor Peter Handke? One source told me that the prize was meant as a “middle finger” to the media and to the committee’s politically correct critics. The other interpretation is that the Swedish Academy blundered into the decision, failing to anticipate the firestorm that followed (which ultimately led to several resignations).
“I think Handke is a great writer and a worthy [recipient] of the Nobel Prize but that [giving] the prize to him was a decision that was rushed through and so poorly motivated it is almost an insult to the suffering people in the Balkans,” Kristoffer Leandoer, a Swedish poet, translator, and literary critic who resigned from the Nobel Committee last year, told me. (Leandoer is married to Sweden’s ambassador to Albania, which he says influenced his decision to resign—he is also the father of “sad boy” rapper and future Nobel Prize winner—2039—Yung Lean.) “And yes, I do think some members of the Academy were delighted that it proved so controversial, thus drowning previous controversies and widening the gap [between] the Academy—involved only in the search of abstract beauty—and the media, concerned with more earthly things.”
What does this all mean for 2020? Who knows? The only certainty about the Nobel Committee is that it does what it wants, while the only certainty about 2020 is that crazy shit happens all the time. And the only certainty about this preview is that whatever I say will be wrong. With those caveats in mind, here are some entirely too strong predictions about who has a chance and who doesn’t.
Betting Favorites Who Actually Have a Shot
- Maryse Conde (Guadeloupean novelist; 4–1 odds)
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist and perennial Nobel bridesmaid; 8–1 odds)
- Yan Lianke (Chinese novelist and short story writer; 12–1 odds)
- Can Xue (Chinese literary critic and short story writer; 16–1 odds)
- Yu Hua (Chinese experimental writer, 20–1 odds)
Look, I’ll be honest—the betting odds aren’t giving me a lot to work with this year. Recent results would make it seem highly probable that the prize would be awarded to a writer working outside of Europe and not in English, since over the past seven years the Nobel Prize has been awarded to three English-language writers and five Europeans. A poet hasn’t won since 2011. A Black African writer has not won since 1986. A woman has only won 15 times, while men have won the prize 101 times.
Three Chinese writers are considered betting favorites this year. Lianke, a satirist who is arguably China’s most controversial novelist, would be another fine choice—and an overdue correction after the state-approved Mo Yan won eight years ago. Yu Hua makes his first appearance in top-flight Nobel Prize speculation, but he may be too avant-garde for the Swedish Academy—were he to win, it would be a major victory for Chinese postmodernism. Can Xue is brilliant and deserving and strikes me, of the three Chinese writers listed here, as the most likely candidate.
Maryse Conde has been a betting favorite in recent years, and her work, which explores colonialism, race, and inequality, is particularly resonant in 2020. I have been cheering for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for five years now. He began his career writing in English but has spent decades now writing in his native tongue; awarding him the prize for his searing work, which is both political and literary, would be the perfect response to the Handke disaster. (That, of course, is also why it probably won’t happen.)
What if the Nobel Prize in Literature Only Goes to Europeans From Now On?
- Lyudmila Ulitskaya (Russian novelist and short story writer; 5–1 odds)
- Javier Marias (Highbrow Janet Evanovich, whose books all take place in museums; 10–1 odds)
- Annie Ernaux (French autobiographical novelist; 20–1 odds)
- Frederike Mayrocker (Austrian poet; 25–1 odds)
- Edna O’Brien (Irish novelist; 25–1 odds)
- Jon Fosse (the Norwegian heroin to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Norwegian cocaine; 20–1 odds)
- Milan Kundera (91-year-old French-Czech writer of essay-fiction hybrids considered deeply uncool by the same people who treasure contemporary essay-fiction hybrids about being on the debate team; 33–1 odds)
- Mircea Cărtărescu (Romanian novelist; no odds)
- Ismail Kadare (Albanian novelist; no odds)
- Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungarian writer who, when I make fun of him for being read only by sad young men, generates a torrent of angry emails in my inbox from sad young men; 33–1 odds)
- Peter Nadas (Hungary’s second-most-important export, behind neofascism; no odds)
For reasons discussed above, all of these writers are unlikely to win—unless, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature is in the midst of a rebrand as a European literature prize, which is basically what it traditionally has been. Bettors once again think that this is Ulitskaya’s year, but I’m not so certain—she operates in a similar political, literary, and geographical space as two recent laureates, Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk. Nadas, Kadare, O’Brien, and Cărtărescu are all deserving and thus wholly unlikely recipients. Fosse is the galaxy brain to Knausgaard’s small brain and Dag Solstad’s big brain, but I can’t see a Scandinavian winning for another couple of years at least. Marias and Krasznahorkai would win if the Nobel Committee were composed entirely of editorial assistants at a literary imprint of a big publishing house who spend their days polishing their grad school applications for an English Ph.D. Kundera is one of the last of a cohort of twentieth-century figures whose personal life everyone is just a little better off not knowing too much about. His fiction has not aged particularly well, and Ivan Klima is very much still alive, if the Swedish Academy would like to award someone from the Czech Republic’s Golden Generation. A poet hasn’t won since 2011, so Mayrocker is probably the closest thing to a dark horse on this list.
But These Europeans Are Definitely Not Going to Win
- Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian literature’s Marlboro Man, also Norwegian literature’s main importer of Marlboros; 33–1 odds)
- Michel Houellebecq (literate Gerard Depardieu; 33–1 odds)
- Sally Rooney (thinkpiece subject; no odds)
- Elena Ferrante (a more consequential Neapolitan export than Curzio Malaparte, a less consequential Neapolitan export than Neapolitan pizza; no odds)
There would be something extremely funny about the Nobel Committee, having kicked up a shitstorm by giving the prize to Peter Handke, deciding to quadruple down and award the prize to Houellebecq, who would then give the standard lecture he usually delivers at cultural centers and alleys that reek of vomit: “Why the European Union Is Now a Caliphate.” Knausgaard, Rooney, and Ferrante have nothing in common except the fact that they will not win the Nobel Prize this year.
Does Britain Still Count as Europe? It Doesn’t Matter Because These Writers Are Also Not Going to Win
- Hillary Mantel (Historical-slash-fic writer; 33–1 odds)
- Salman Rushdie (U2 collaborator; no odds)
- Ian McEwan (Former author of entertainingly perverted high-concept fiction, current author of platitudinous and rote hot-take fiction; no odds)
- Martin Amis (Christopher Hitchens fanfic writer; no odds)
- Julian Barnes (Quietly the best and most consistent of the ’80s British Novelist Dudes; no odds)
- Tom Stoppard (Revenge of the Sith ghostwriter; no odds)
- J.K. Rowling (the K stands for “Karen”; no odds)
I sometimes think about how mad the male novelists on this list were when Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize two years ago, and I laugh and laugh and laugh.
These Americans Aren’t Going to Win
- Marilynne Robinson (What passes for going to church these days; 16–1 odds)
- Thomas Pynchon (America’s stoner grandpa; no odds)
- Don DeLillo (Sadly lived long enough to see everything he prophesied come true; 16–1 odds)
- Cormac McCarthy (Less prolific Clint Eastwood; 16–1 odds)
- Richard Ford (Sentient Harper’s letter; no odds)
- Joan Didion (American Joan Didion; no odds)
- Joyce Carol Oates (American Twitter user; no odds)
- Dave Eggers (American brand; no odds)
- William T. Vollmann (American describer of trains; 33–1 odds)
- Louise Gluck (Least irritating poet whose work you regularly encounter on Instagram; 25–1 odds)
- Charles Simic (American poet; 25–1 odds)
- Stephen King (Typical Maine resident; 50–1 odds)
I have spoken to a couple of Swedes over the past week who are convinced that this is an American’s year. I’m not so sure. DeLillo and Pynchon, whose work only grows more resonant in this depressing, stupid historical moment, remain the leading candidates, though as old white American men, they do nothing to correct the prize’s well-established blind spots. Marilynne Robinson’s descriptions of the texture of paint on church walls—as well as her depiction of a Calvinist America devoid of fun—surely resonate with Scandinavians, though it’s unclear if the Nobel Prize Committee reads Dwight Garner. Richard Ford may be helped by the fact that he inexplicably does not have a “Controversies” section on his Wikipedia, but the joke in the title of Let Me Be Frank With You doesn’t translate well into Swedish.
William T. Vollmann is back in the Nobel conversation, but he won’t win because his Wikipedia page lists, in the “unpublished and rare works” section of his bibliography, something called “Ten poems, in wooden box.” Eggers is only here to remind us that given the average age of the leading contenders, a new generation of American writers will soon emerge in Nobel Prize speculation, and that might not be a good thing. This is the first year in a long time that Joyce Carol Oates hasn’t been considered a top-tier favorite, a sign that people might actually be reading her tweets. Cormac McCarthy would win, if not for the deity in the realms of dementia, the rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia, this mawky wormbent tabernacle, and also because members of the Nobel Prize Committee saw The Counselor and thought it was “a bit much.” But none of this matters because, after Dylan, an American won’t win the prize for decades (and will be banned from participating in 2050, when an aging President-for-Life Donald Trump Jr. declares war on Sweden after his spy novels, ghostwritten by an aging Charlie Kirk, fail to be awarded).
The Toronto Raptors Won the 2019 NBA Championship, so These Canadians Could Win the 2020 Nobel Prize
- Margaret Atwood (Canadian Twitter user; 6–1 odds)
- Anne Carson (Poet, playwright, translator, essayist, spectral presence, elusive blade of grass, shadow; 10–1 odds)
The odds are strongly against a writer of English, and they are perhaps particularly against a Canadian writer of English, given that Alice Munro won the Nobel seven years ago, but Atwood and Carson both give me pause. Atwood’s selection would certainly be timely, given *gestures at everything.* As for Carson—it’s been nine years since someone whose primary occupation is “poet” won the prize, and the Swedish Academy might award the prize to one in order to get the others to shut up. (They should know, however, that this never works with poets.)
These Non-Europeans Definitely Won’t Win
- Haruki Murakami (a well-furnished living room with lots of beechwood furniture and an impressive home audio setup; 6–1 odds)
- Ko Un (South Korean poet; 10–1 odds)
- Amos Oz (Israeli novelist; 16–1 odds)
I am so convinced that Murakami will never win the Nobel Prize in Literature that he should probably be considered a leading favorite. But don’t fret if he loses once again. Murakami must be having a nice quarantine. He has, after all, managed to write novels while hanging out with cats, listening to records, maintaining a running journal, and cooking pasta. It probably makes his life easier that his novels are exclusively about hanging out with cats, listening to records, maintaining a running journal, and cooking pasta.
Ko Un and Amos Oz, meanwhile, are perfect examples of why betting odds are very, very bad at predicting the Nobel Prize. Ko Un is a leading favorite and top-tier candidate whose reputation was destroyed by a #MeToo scandal, to the point that he was taken out of Korean textbooks two years ago. As for Amos Oz, he is a 16–1 favorite for the second year in a row—despite having died in 2018.
But These Non-Europeans Just Might Win...
- Jamaica Kincaid (Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, and plant writer; 20–1 odds)
- Scholastique Mukasonga (French-Rwandan novelist; 25–1 odds)
- Homero Aridjis (Mexican poet; 33–1 odds)
- Linton Kwesi Johnson (Jamaican dub poet; 33–1 odds)
- Adonis (Syrian poet; no odds)
- Mia Couto (Mozambican novelist and short story writer; no odds)
- Ibrahim Kuni (Libyan novelist; no odds)
- Sonallah Ibrahim (Egyptian novelist; no odds)
- Nuruddin Farah (Somali novelist; no odds)
- Hoda Barakat (Lebanese novelist; no odds)
- F. Sionil José (Filipino novelist and short story writer; no odds)
- Mohammed Dowlatabadi (Iranian novelist; no odds)
- Dương Thu Hương (Vietnamese novelist; no odds)
- Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghanian novelist; no odds)
- Lorna Goodison (Jamaican poet; no odds)
- Alain Mabanckou (Congolese novelist; no odds)
- Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghanian novelist; no odds)
- Bảo Ninh (Vietnamese novelist; no odds)
- Emmanuel Dongala (Congolese novelist; no odds)
- Etel Adnan (Lebanese-American poet; no odds)
- Nawal El Saadawi (Egyptian writer; no odds)
- Someone not mentioned on this list from a country not mentioned on this list (2–1 odds)
This should be a year for the Nobel Prize to finally start correcting its many blind spots—its dismal record on gender and race, its myopic Eurocentrism. But I say that every year! Don’t listen to me!