The 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature is set to be announced on Thursday, and you can bet there's a gambling pool around the winners. As of Monday morning, Haruki Murakami was in the lead with 2:1 odds, while Alice Munro, Péter Nádas, and the Chinese writer Mo Yan were in a dead heat for second place.
How good are the odds that Ladbrokes got the answer? I wouldn't wager too high. Last year, Murakami and Nádas were at the top of the list (as was the reclusive Australian writer Gerald Murnane), hot on the heels of recently published books, but Bob Dylan was getting pretty good money as well. Then the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer pulled into the fore, as did Mario Vargas Llosa the year before, so I think we can assume this year's winner won't be terribly controversial.
Which means my money's on a capital-L Literary author. Scanning down the list, I see the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. Really, Ladbrokes? The only people to win multiple prizes — Marie Curie, Linus Pauling, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger — were all in the sciences, and stayed in the sciences (even the one who won the Peace prize for anti-nuclear activism). Don't get me wrong. Thinking, Fast and Slow is indeed brilliant, but hardly the stuff of English classes. Then again, neither is Fifty Shades of Grey, currently sitting at the very bottom of Ladbrokes' list. It's okay; E.L. James doesn't need the money or fame anyway.
The people picking the winner are a select group: only eighteen members, all of whom are in the Swedish Academy. There are plenty of authors who are shortlisted year after year, and only awarded the prize after repeated consideration.
Recently, there's been a strong anti-American bias; four years ago, the Committee's secretary, Horace Engdahl, made headlines when he averred that "the U.S. is too isolated, too insular." As an American, I'd love to help make an argument to the contrary, but Engdahl has since stepped down, and the recent peace prize to Barack Obama implies that American authors do have a chance again to capture the Nobel. Maybe there's hope for Philip Roth this year.
So who do I think will win? I think Murakami has very good chances indeed, although he merits the prize less for 1Q84 than for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which tackles the Sino-Japanese war among other things. I'd love to see Péter Nádas win for his monumental Parallel Stories, which is easily one of the most brilliant and dense books I've read since college. But the ones who are most likely to win are probably further down the list right now. The Dutch author Cees Nooteboom has been in the running for years, and has slowly amassed an extraordinary oeuvre that taps into great themes and gorgeous allusions. Adonis, a Syrian poet, consistently ranks among the greatest writers in Arabic, and his recently-translated Selected Poems is a wonder to read. And Salman Rushdie's books have probably had a greater effect on the world at large than nearly any other living author; his Joseph Anton gives us a small idea of his experience after The Satanic Verses and his subsequent fatwa. They'd all be deserving winners.
Go on, place your bets.
Image: J.M. Coetzee, the 2003 prize winner, giving his speech at the Nobel Prize Banquet. Credit: Nobelprize.org