Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Alfred_NobelLee Smith over at the Weekly Standard:

Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.

Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to speculate on who’ll walk away with the Prize, or whether the academy will do well by literature or merely prove, again, that even Nobel nods. It is unfortunately true that many of the Nobel’s choices have little do with literary merit. Remember that even the linguistically versatile Northern European academics who award the prize read a limited number of languages, the bulk of which are European. If this year they choose Ko Un it’s not because they turn to this poet’s work in the original Korean for solace and inspiration.

That said, the academy’s reputation for selecting writers on account of their political relevance is inflated. The translators, publishers and scholars of relatively unknown authors from timely danger zones – say, the Proust of Yemen, the Yeats of Burma – would like the academy to take account of the political situation that makes their chosen figure significant, but the Swedes rarely comply. To be sure, they named a Chinese émigré, Gao Xingjian, in 2000, and in 2007 they chose Orhan Pamuk in the midst of Ankara’s prosecution of the Turkish novelist for speaking out about the Armenian issue. But consider that it’s been almost a decade since 9/11 and they have yet to name an Arab, passing up the Palestinian favorite Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008.

The fact is that as often as not, Stockholm goes against the grain, naming authors that are, to say the least, politically indelicate, like the great VS Naipual, 2001’s winner. In effect, forecasting the Nobel Prize for Literature is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.