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Who Will Win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

If Bob Dylan wins, I will eat my copy of "Blood on the Tracks"

Olivier Morin / Getty

UPDATE: Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. 

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded on Thursday. Unlike other literary awards, the Nobel has no shortlist, no longlist, no hyped announcements of judges and juries, no DJ sets in honor of the nominees. It is, in other words, open to endless speculation, and that speculation is always baseless. Which is why most of the coverage in the lead-up to the announcement tends to focus on the odds set by British bookmaker Ladbrokes. Ladbrokes, at least, gives us some names to work with.

The current favorites, according to Ladbrokes, are Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich (3/1), Japanese novelist and spaghetti-enthusiast Haruki Murakami (6/1), and Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (also 6/1). The Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse and American writers Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth currently all have 10/1 odds of winning the Nobel.

The problem with Ladbrokes’s Nobel odds, however, is that they aren’t particularly accurate. The favorite has only won the prize once in the last eleven years, when Orhan Pamuk won in 2006. Since 2004, the favorite has typically been one of a handful of popular candidates: Roth has led the pack before, while Murakami and the Syrian poet Adonis have each been the favorite on three separate occasions each.

Why are the oddmakers wrong so often? The lack of longlists, shortlists, and leaks is one reason—the Nobel Prize for Literature could conceivably go to anyone and the Nobel Committee often gives the award to writers who are relative unknowns in the international community (particularly in the United States, which infamously publishes very few works in translation). “We are very modest about our abilities to forecast events such as this,” Ladbrokes spokesperson Matthew Shaddick said in an email, “so we tend to let the market (i.e. our customer's money) be the guide as to where the odds should be.”

Writing in this publication in 2012, Chloe Schama expounded on why “letting the market be the guide” often produces unrealistic odds:

The more people that place bets on a particular writer, the shorter the odds. The shorter the odds, the more favored the writer. But while such scenarios tend to be fairly accurate when it comes to political elections (Intrade is, more often than not, a fairly accurate predictor of electoral outcomes), there’s a limit to how far the literary wisdom-of-the crowds extends. For one thing, the number of participants is pretty small—making the odds highly susceptible to shifting whims. The numbers of people who place bets on the Nobel is in the thousands, with the typical bet ten or twenty pounds. (Ladbrokes takes in an amount in the tens of thousands of pounds from the Nobel contest; a Saturday afternoon Premiership League soccer match, by contrast, might bring in half a million pounds, says spokesman Alex Donohue.) This means that a few bets of large amounts or a sudden flurry can push one candidate ahead.

In other words, Ladbrokes’s odds are based on betting action, not reality: just because a writer is a favorite of the weirdos who spend their hard-earned money betting on cultural prizes doesn’t mean that that same writer is a favorite of the Nobel Academy. Still, that doesn’t mean that some of the writers on Ladbrokes’s list aren’t real candidates--only that their odds are most likely wrong. With that in mind, I’ve assembled a kind of Nobel Prize for Literature Power Rankings, which unscientifically separates the wheat from the chaff.

Ladbrokes Favorites Who Actually Have a Shot (Maybe)

  • Svetlana Alexievich (Belarusian investigative journalist, and short story writer; 3/1 odds)
  • Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist; 6/1 odds)
  • Ko Un (South Korean poet; 14/1 odds)
  • Nawal El Saadawi (Egyptian nonfiction writer; 16/1 odds)
  • Peter Nadas (Hungarian novelist, playwright, and essayist; 16/1 odds)

All of these writers have odds set at 20/1 or better, and all of them strike me as legitimate favorites. Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl, an oral history of the nuclear catastropheis her best known book in America (it’s translated by Keith Gessen and is very good), but she’s the favorite for good reason—she’s a political writer who’s critical of her home country’s repressive government, and her work is popular in Sweden. Ko Un, a South Korean poet who has been imprisoned several times for advocating for democratic rights, and the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, also strike me as being in line with the Nobel Committee politically and aesthetically. I continue to be surprised that Thiong'o hasn’t won the prize, so I won’t be surprised if he wins it this year—a black African writer hasn’t won since poet Wole Soyinka was honored in 1986. As for Peter Nadas, author of the mammoth Parallel Stories—I tried to put $10 on him before realizing Ladbrokes doesn’t take bets from the United States.

Ladbrokes Favorites Who Probably Won't Win but Shouldn't be Discounted Completely

  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungarian novelist and screenwriter; 25/1 odds)
  • Ismail Kadare (Albanian novelist and poet; 20/1 odds)
  • Amos Oz (Israeli novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • Cesar Aira (Argentine novelist, short story writer and essayist; 33/1 odds)
  • Adam Zagajewski (Polish poet and essayist; 33/1 odds)
  • Javier Marias (Spanish novelist, short story writer, essayist and translator; 50/1 odds)
  • Mia Couto (Mozambican novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Nuruddin Farah (Somali novelist; 20/1 odds)

This list could also be called “people I’d like to see win the Nobel but probably won’t, either because they’re too popular, not political enough, or too stylistically divergent from Nobel tradition.” Still, these are all deserving candidates. Even if none of them wins this year, expect them to be favorites in the years to come.

Ladbrokes Favorites Who Probably Won’t Win (Unless They Do)

  • Adonis (Syrian poet, essayist, and translator; 20/1 odds)
  • Peter Handke (Austrian novelist and playwright; 14/1 odds)
  • John Banville (Irish novelist; 16/1 odds)
  • Cees Nooteboom (Dutch novelist and poet; 25/1 odds)
  • Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright; 10/1 odds)
  • Milan Kundera (Czech novelist and playwright; 33/1 odds)

The Syrian poet Adonis has been a perennial favorite for good reason: he’s arguably the most influential modernist Arab poet, and his work is distinctly political. Plus, he’s been critical of Bashar al-Assad—that may help him get over the hump, but I suspect the Nobel Committee will want to steer clear of controversy. Handke seems to have inherited his fellow-Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s love of provocation, which means he’s probably too hot to handle for the Nobel Committee. Banville is possibly too popular, but it’s his genre work (written as “Benjamin Black”) that probably puts him safely out of the running. Cees Nooteboom and Jon Fosse strike me as too dull, too popular, and too geographically close to Sweden to be real possibilities this year. Kundera, though wildly popular, hasn’t been relevant for quite a while and has a mixed reputation in his home country—neither of those facts should hold the Nobel Committee back, but it still feels like the Czech novelist’s window has closed.

Who the Hell Is That and Why Did They Just Win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

  • A.B. Yehoshua (Israeli novelist, playwright, and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portuguese novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Bei Dao (Chinese poet; odds 50/1)
  • Eduardo Mendoza Garriga (Spanish novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Maryse Conde (French/Guadeloupian novelist; 25/1 odds)
  • Claudio Magris (Italian novelist and nonfiction writer; 33/1 odds)
  • Eeva Kilpi (Finnish novelist, short story writer and poet; 50/1 odds)
  • Enrique Vila-Matas (Spanish novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • F. Sionil Jose (Filipino novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Darcia Maraini (Italian novelist, playwright, essayist, and social activist; 50/1 odds)
  • Juan Goytisolo (Spanish novelist, poet and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Michel Tournier (French novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Mircea Cartarescu (Romanian novelist, poet and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Yan Lianke (Chinese novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Juan Marse (Spanish novelist, journalist and screenwriter; 50/1 odds)
  • Merethe Lindstrom (Norwegian novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Yevgeniy Yevtushenk (Russian poet; 50/1 odds)
  • Karel Schoeman (South African novelist, historian, and translator; 50/1 odds)
  • Kjell Askildsen (Norwegian short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Yves Bonnefoy (French poet and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Leonard Nolens (Belgian poet and Diary Writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spanish novelist; no Ladbrokes odds)
  • Mohammed Dowlatabadi (Iranian novelist; no Ladbrokes odds)
  • Mikhail Shishkin (Russian novelist, short story writer, and essayist; 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)
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya (Russian novelist and short story writer; no Ladbrokes odds)
  • Someone You’ve Never Heard of From a Country You’ve Never Visited (2/1 Ladbrokes odds)

If any of these people win the Nobel Prize on Thursday, expect a rash of “Who?” tweets. None of these writers is particularly well known in America, though some of them should be. If a Spanish writer not named Javier Marias wins the prize, it’ll probably be Antonio Muñoz Molina. Shiskin is one of Russia’s most renowned writers. The Iranian novelist Mohammed Dowlatabadi would be an inspired choice, but an unlikely one. The Mexican writer Sergio Pitol would be another interesting choice—either way, expect his fellow countryman Yuri Herrera to make noise in the coming years.

Too Popular, Too English, or Both

  • Haruki Murakami (Japanese novelist; 6/ 1 odds)
  • Umberto Eco (Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Karl Ove Knausgard (Norwegian novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • David Malouf (Australian novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • Peter Carey (Australian novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • A.S. Byatt (British novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Colm Toibin (Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright; 50/1 odds)
  • Les Murray (Australian poet and critic; 50/1 odds)
  • Margaret Atwood (Canadian novelist, poet and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Neil Gaiman (British novelist, short story writer and graphic novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Paul Muldoon (Irish poet; 50/1 odds)
  • Anne Carson (Canadian poet, essayist, and translator; 20/1 odds)
  • Gerald Murnane (Australian novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • Hilary Mantel (English novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Ian McEwan (British novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • James Kelman (Scottish novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Don Paterson (Scottish poet; 50/1 odds)
  • Rohinton Mistry (Indo-Canadian novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Salman Rushdie (Indo-British novelist, short story writer, and essayist; 50/1 odds)
  • Tom Stoppard (British playwright; 50/1 odds)
  • William Trevor  (Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright; 50/1 odds)

Perennial favorite Haruki Murakami is not going to win the Nobel Prize this year, and I can’t really see him winning it anytime soon. His reputation and popularity have made him a favorite for gamblers, but I suspect this will also prevent him from taking home the top prize. Eco is another candidate who’s probably too popular and accessible to win (though I did have a dream that he won a couple months ago, whatever that’s worth).  As for the rest of this group, there are a couple of genuine Nobel candidates here. I wouldn’t mind seeing Kelman get it, but Mistry and Trevor also come to mind as serious possibilities. Stoppard is also due for a lifetime achievement award at this point, but Alice Munro won the prize two years ago, and I can’t see the committee awarding another English-language writer so soon. That hasn’t happened since Nadine Gordimer, Derek Walcott, and Toni Morrison won it in 1991, 1992, and 1993, respectively. And Karl Knausgaard isn’t going to win because the Nobel Prize Committee doesn’t want to subject itself or us to the work that would follow.

Sorry, But None of These Americans Is Going to Win

  • Joyce Carol Oates (American novelist and short story writer; 10/1 odds)
  • Philip Roth (American novelist; 10/1 odds)
  • Don DeLillo (American novelist; 20/1 odds)
  • Bob Dylan (American songwriter; 33/1 odds)
  • Cormac McCarthy (American novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • Lydia Davis (American short story writer; 33/1 odds)
  • Marilynne Robinson (American novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • Thomas Pynchon (American novelist; 33/1 odds)
  • Ursula Le Guin (American novelist and short story writer; 33/1 odds)
  • Daniel Kahneman (American psychologist; 50/1 odds)
  • E.L. Doctorow (American novelist; 50/1 odds)
  • George R.R. Martin (American novelist and short story writer; 50/1 odds)
  • Joan Didion (American novelist and journalist; 50/1 odds)
  • John Ashbery (American poet; 50/1 odds)
  • Richard Ford (American novelist; 50/1 odds)

An American hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison won it in 1993, and an American is probably not going to win it in 2015. Munro’s victory two years ago, makes it highly unlikely that the prize would go to an American. That said, even if they were going to award the candidate to an American, I doubt they would give it to one of the candidates listed above. Only DeLillo strikes me as a plausible Nobel laureate, though I could envision a world in which Ursula Le Guin and Lydia Davis take the prize. (This may be wishful thinking). John Ashbery is arguably the most influential poet of the past half-century, but he isn’t going to win this year. Joyce Carol Oates’s voluminous output and Twitter feed disqualify her. Roth’s retirement makes him unlikely to get the call. McCarthy’s work is almost certainly too regional. Pynchon’s output is too weird, while Robinson will likely be excluded because her novels are too similar to one another (though I suppose that did help Patrick Modiano). E.L. Doctorow is intriguing, but unlikely—he died over the summer and would have had to have already made the longlist to be under consideration.

Richard Ford would win the Nobel Prize, but the Committee is too afraid to invite him to the party. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist, for Chrissakes and he hasn’t written fiction in his life, as far as I know—he’s best known as the author of your dad’s favorite book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Joan Didion isn’t going to win because the Internet would explode if she did. The Nobel Prize Committee knows better than to provide another distraction to George R.R. Martin—they surely want Winds of Winter as badly as we do. And Bob Dylan? Despite being beloved by people who don’t know anything about the kinds of writers who actually win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan is not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Dylan does win, I will eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks.