The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature Roundtable

The Nobel Prize in Literature is set to be announced very very soon (the Nobel Committee doesn’t reveal the exact date in advance, but we know it will be on a Thursday in October, possibly as soon as October 6).

Every year, the Prize is always one of the most entertaining things to speculate about, so we’ve lined up three of our own to give their thoughts. Below you’ll see Senior Editor Scott Esposito, Associate Editor Emily Wolahan, and Editorial Assistant Sarah Coolidge say who they think should win—and who they think shouldn’t.

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Haruki Murakami 6 to 1

Scott: At this point, I feel like Murakami is kinda the default odds-on favorite. He basically hits all the Nobel tropes: huge international reputation, international tropes all over his work, very well-translated into English, has picked up a lot of the major international prizes, from a country that hasn’t gotten one in a while (Kenzaburō Ōe, 1994) . . . heck, in recent years he’s even gone out of his way to write big books engaging in major historical themes to shore up his credentials. At this point Murakami is basically the guy everybody knows should win, which, at length, seems to be the best argument against him.

Sarah: I don’t know. Murakami is certainly a well-established figure, and he’s been passed up several times, but I wouldn’t put any money on him personally. It seems to me that the Swedish Academy likes to honor writers that they feel are underrepresented. And so in the cases of Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates, their widespread success actually hurts their chances. Then again, nobody really knows what the Academy is looking for . . . Could it be Murakami?

Scott: I would say, out of all the people you “know” should win, he’s probably among the better chances of winning, but I still don’t think his chances are great. And to be honest, I feel like he’s gotten worse in recent years. His later books just don’t have the freshness and the energy of the first ones.

Emily: Mu-ra-ka-mi! Mu-ra-ka-mi! If I march down the street chanting his name, will the Nobel people hear me? While this choice would be “obvious,” and maybe the Nobel peeps are like teenagers who detest the expected, I have loved Murakami for twenty years. He taught me about writing and about how to be an inquiring person in the world. MURAKAMI!

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Philip Roth 9 to 1

Scott: I don’t even know what to say here . . . I mean, Roth has gotten every award, like every award. He’s probably the most critically acclaimed American author ever. The Library of America edition of his life’s work covers 9 volumes. He’s basically the closest thing we have to state-sponsored writer. But I honestly don’t know what these 9 to 1 odds are based on. Does the Nobel really give out prizes for meta-fictive, semi-autobiographical depictions of neurotic Americans in grotesquely inappropriate extra-marital relationships? Honestly, if Roth is 9 to 1, Houellebecq has got to be in the teens at least. Wait a minute . . . where is Houellebecq? He’s like the more philosophical, more contemporary, European Roth, with Muslims. Seriously, where is he? Anyway, it’s not going to be Roth.

Emily: UGH. I cannot say anything about Philip Roth because I have never read Philip Roth. He is a writer who leaves me, a woman, completely out of his intended audience pool and, frankly, Mr. Roth, there are plenty of great writers who don’t do that. I kind of don’t want the world seeing American literature as Roth. Hey, how about Lydia Davis? How come she’s 51 to 1?

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o 11 to 1

Scott: I feel like Ngugi is a pretty solid candidate. He’s done a lot of very valid literary writing that has discernible political angles. He can be considered pan-African (which is important when your last African laureate was JM Coetzee in 2003, and the one before that was also South African (Nadine Gordimer, 1991)). He’s well-known internationally but has nothing like the reputation of a Murakami. He’s been working for 50 years and has constructed a very diverse, substantial oeuvre. He’s been politically persecuted. Basically, every year I’m a little surprised that Ngugi doesn’t get the Prize. At this point, the best arguments against him are that: a) he has pretty good name-rec in the United States, which sometimes seems to be a mark against potential laureates, and b) he’s getting into Murakami territory, where more and more people seem to expect him to get it each year.

Sarah: Ngugi is my choice this year. He’s been a favorite for the Prize for several years now, and I think this year may be his year. He’s one of the most famous writers from Africa today, and not many African writers have won the Nobel. Plus his oeuvre is incredible, spanning nearly every genre, and he recently came out with a memoir. On top of all that, he’s written across two languages—English and Gikuyu. While I think he’s well-known, I don’t think he’s been recognized enough in the wider international community. I’d like to see him win.

Emily: I agree, Sarah! I’d like to see Ngugi win. Not only is his work wonderful, his stance on writing—and the language in which you choose to write—has been influential and important. He strikes me as author and emissary to how the world ought to be.

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Joyce Carol Oates 17 to 1

Scott: People always like to ask, when will another American win the Nobel Prize in lit? It has been a long time (Toni Morrison, 1993). And I think Joyce Carol Oates has done a lot of writing that you can recommend to people. But seriously? Joyce Carol Oates? On what grounds? When was the last time you read anything about her that wasn’t some kind of highbrow celebrity gossip thing focusing on graphomania? Do people really think the Swedish Academy is going to award a Nobel for work done in revitalizing the American gothic genre? How many people betting on her at 17 to 1 even know anything about her other than that she’s famous and has written a ton of books? And the tweets. Don’t get me started on the tweets.

Sarah: Wow, Scott, haha. I guess I agree that most people I talk to have liked her writing but been overwhelmed by the quantity rather than the quality of her writing. I’ve never really been able to keep up with Oates’ books myself. I’ve liked a few things, but she wouldn’t be my first pick among American writers.

Emily: Another American will win the Nobel Prize when JOHN ASHBERY wins the Nobel Prize. Team John!

Scott: OK, just one tweet.

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Ismail Kadaré 17 to 1

Emily: When I was twenty, my mom gave me a copy of The File on H. This is remarkable because my mother and I don’t share the same taste in books, so when we arrive at the same spot (like with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, when I was in high school), it’s a big moment for me. The File on H was my introduction to Kadaré (spoiler alert: two Irish linguists travel to Albania in the 1930s on a Homerian quest to record the dying oral tradition and then the story turns into a thriller). I’d be excited to see him win and draw attention to a region of literature that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Scott: I feel like Kadaré might be a sleeper. He’s one of the more esteemed writers on this list, and he checks a lot of boxes that the Academy likes to have checked. I could definitely live with him as the choice.

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Adunis 26 to 1

Sarah: Adonis/Adunis is way overdue for the Nobel. Besides being a pioneer of avant-garde Arabic poetry, he has been an important voice in Middle Eastern politics. He’s a regular on the list of favorites, but I’m afraid he may have been passed over for good. His political involvement has been questioned recently. I know, for example, that there was some controversy in 2011 when he won the Goethe Prize. Since he’s lived in Europe for so long, people have been challenging his understanding of contemporary Syria. His critics pointed out that, while he wrote a letter asking Syrian dictator Assad to step down, he didn’t seem to show much sympathy for Syrian revolutionaries or refugees. Basically, I’m wondering if the Swedish Academy will want to choose such a controversial candidate, despite his incredible literary achievements.

Scott: I’m in agreement here on Adonis. He’s in that territory that Murakami seems to be reaching, in the running so long that he’s basically out of the running. And insofar as his political relevance goes, it seems like Nobel Prize possibles have a sell-by date that Adonis has passed. That said, the last poetry winner was Tranströmer in 2011, and he was also Swedish, which always raises everyone’s eyebrows a bit, so maybe the Academy will be aiming to go a little off the map with a poetry pick this year?

Emily: The Syrian connection makes this a prescient choice, calling attention to major crisis. But, as Scott points out, does Adonis really address that aspect of Syria in his own work? I’m at a disadvantage here because I don’t personally care for Adonis’s poetry. Now, Mahmoud Darwish . . . I’d be excited to see him up here.

Scott: Darwish would be a great contender, but one of those many writers who, sadly, passed away before the Swedes could get around to acknowledging him.

Emily: Oh dear, I’ve arrived late to the party again. RIP Darwish.

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Peter Handke 31 to 1

Scott: So . . . Peter Handke has written roughly a million books, he’s had a good proportion of them translated into English, he’s picked up some of the big German awards, as well as others internationally, but he, too seems like one of those people fated to never win it. I’m sure it didn’t help that Milošević wanted Handke as a defense witness at his trial (based on some controversial things Handke had written; he wisely declined). Also, when he received the Ibsen Prize in 2014, one commentator noted, “awarding Handke the Ibsen Prize is comparable to awarding the Immanuel Kant Prize to Goebbels.” So, needless to say, not the sort of thing the Academy really goes for. On the other hand, Jon Fosse has defended him and even said he’s worthy of a Nobel, but Fosse also seems like the kind of writer exactly engineered to be ignored by the Nobel committee. Question for Sarah and Emily: have either of you ever read Handke, or even really have any idea what the guy is about?

Sarah: I’ve never read Handke! But that may actually improve his chances of winning the Nobel!

Emily: Me, too, Sarah! Never read him. But some buddy of Milošević? Snap judgment: no.

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Adam Zagajewski 34 to 1

Emily: I’m embarrassed to admit that my awareness of Adam Zagajewski has been solely in an American context—he has taught poetry in the U.S. for quite some time and I was at the University of Houston when he was there. It’s not that I didn’t know he’s Polish, but, in truth, it had kind of slipped my mind. His work is beautiful and he’s in a similar vein as Seamus Heaney, I think. I suppose Czeslaw Milosz won back in 1980, and Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, which seems long enough ago to warrant another Polish winner. That said, is Zagajewski a Szymborska? My money isn’t on Zagajewski.

Scott: That seems fair. And it’s a good point, with two Polish poetry laureates, it’s hard to argue for a third. Especially with so much interesting prose happening in Poland. The Poles pretty much own the literary nonfiction category that Svetlana Alexievich got recognized for last year. Hanna Krall (who has been translated a little but not nearly enough) is canonical here, as are Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. And I think on the fiction side Olga Tokarczuk might be a contender one of these days, especially with a major translation of her career-defining work The Books of Jacob forthcoming, but that’s probably for the future. And of course you can’t forget Andrzej Stasiuk.

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Ko Un 34 to 1

Emily: I am very new to reading Ko Un, which I have encountered only in The Three Way Tavern, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg. He’s described as the “preeminent” poet of Korea, a country that’s getting a decent amount of attention in the poetry world thanks to Don Mee Choi’s great translations of Kim Hyesoon. Ko couldn’t write more different poetry than Kim; his seems to be rooted in a longer standing tradition of Buddhism and the pastoral. What do I think his chances are? By Sarah’s logic alone—if we haven’t heard of him, that increases his chances with the Nobel board!

Scott: Ko Un is definitely one of those perennials, a poet of immense stature but probably not someone that the Nobel committee is ever going to recognize. But I think Emily raises a good point: so many people are telling me that the interesting work in Korean literature right now is among the female poets, and certainly with the historical treatment of women in Korea (and with the treatment of female Korean poets especially) there’s a definite political angle to be had here. So I think, let’s see some people like Kim Hyesoon and her colleagues on this longlist.

Gerald Murnane 51 to 1

Scott: I really love Murnane . . . I mean, I think Murnane is probably one of a handful of English-language authors of his generation that you can say have indisputably contributed to the rejuvenation of the English language and found an original way to create literature, but there’s just no way he ever gets a Nobel. I mean, one of his early books (autobiographical) was all about a kid masturbating. A later one was about his writer’s block and some weird and sexually frightening reminisces about his childhood. Do I need to say that this is exactly the kind of writing that the Swedish Academy despises?

Emily: I can’t really weigh in here, Scott. I’ve never read Murnane, but I can say that Australia never seems to get enough love. How about poet Les Murray? Odds: 51 to 1.

Scott: Les Murray is definitely the go-to dude in Australia, but I’m feeling like his politics aren’t going to make a Nobel Prize happen any time soon.

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Bob Dylan 51 to 1

Scott: Definitely the fact that Bob Dylan has odds equal to László Krasznahorkai and superior to Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and a ton of other writers basically proves that this is all an exercise in bullshit. In effect: he’s not going to win, he’s never going to win. He’s just up here so that nostalgic Boomers can tell their grandkids listening to Pitbull that they bet on Dylan.

Sarah: Why does Bob Dylan show up on every list of potential Nobel winners? It’s not funny anymore . . . I’m not trying to criticize the guy as a songwriter, but he’s the only songwriter appearing on all these lists! Suggestion to folk fans: give up on the Nobel. Or else work on setting Cormac McCarthy’s writing to music—because otherwise it isn’t gunna happen.

Scott: I do wonder what it is about Dylan. Why the mystique? Why not Mick Jagger while you’re at it? Brian Wilson? Paul McCartney?

Sarah: Joni Mitchell? Edith Piaf? The list goes on and on . . .

Emily: What? Dylan? Pshaw. Mickey Mouse for President.

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László Krasznahorkai 51 to 1

Scott: I feel like Krasznahorkai might have a chance, though probably not for a few years yet. His international profile has been on the rise in past years, and he writes about the sorts of questions that the Swedish Academy really loves to cover, all about power and questions of society, civilization, cyclical violence, fascism, etc, etc, etc. He’s found his own tone and language to do that in, though he also writes out of a very recognizable European tradition, albeit at the periphery, being Hungarian. He’s even traveled to Asia to give his writings an added dimension. He’s even a little on the outs with the government of his country. It’s all stuff that the Nobel tends to go for.

Emily: I agree. I think Krasznahorkai has a good chance, if not now then in the future. He’s certainly one of the writers I enjoy—and it’s no mean feat to read one of his books. War & War is a place to start, but there’s a lot to choose from. Seiobo There Below is sitting on my proverbial nightstand waiting to be read.

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Cormac McCathy 67 to 1

Scott: I really love McCarthy, a whole, whole lot, and I think he’s opened doors on to the American South and the American/Mexican border regions that nobody has ever opened before (and probably never will again). He’s also clearly one of the major writers in the American English vernacular. All that said, it’s not clear to me that these are things the Academy cares about.

Emily: Man, I love McCarthy, too. Is it a sign of my age that many of the writers on this list, Murakami, McCarthy, DeLillo, were the writers I read in my early twenties / late teens that blew my mind and made me want to write? In any case, I’d be pretty pleased if McCarthy won.

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Don DeLillo 67 to 1

Scott: I feel like if DeLillo were to get the award now, it would be too much like a lifetime achievement award. He’s past his Nobel sell-by date. Probably there was a moment in the late ‘90s when DeLillo was looking as prophetic as he ever has been, when basically he was reaping the rewards of a lifetime of dedication and forward-looking writing that really captured the cultural moment of the developed world. Of course, then on 9/11/2001 DeLillo instantly became possibly the most belated writer in the history of literature (if not the most belated, high among them), and everything he’s done since then—which actually includes some pretty good writing—feels like an asterisk. So it just seems like his moment has passed, the world has moved on to different writers, different concerns.

Emily: That’s harsh, Scott, but I kind of see what you’re talking about. At one point, he was a god I was sure lived only in the pages of his books. Then, he was a writer I saw take part in a group reading of Italian-American authors in a Barnes & Noble in New York. Go figure.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard 67 to 1

Scott: I’m not really sure on what grounds Knausgaard is a valid candidate for the Nobel Prize other than having pretty good literary celebrity status among European intellectuals at the moment. I don’t mean this as a dis. I like Knausgaard and his work. But his oeuvre at present basically is nowhere near what anyone would consider Nobel-worthy work.

Sarah: I agree, Scott. For one thing, Marcel Proust never won the Nobel. And if we’re going to go nominating celebrity writers, where’s Elena Ferrante? In fact, why is Joyce Carol Oates the only woman getting any decent odds . . . ?

Scott: That’s a great point—where is Elena Ferrante? If mystery and celebrity are our measures, she’s far beyond Knausgaard by now. And also, she’s got a much more complete oeuvre at this point than Knausgaard. And how could the Academy pass up the opportunity to get her to dox herself?

Emily: Yes, he’s a flavor-of-the-month still, which isn’t to say he won’t become much more. For some reason I’m really feeling Lydia Davis today: 51 to 1 everyone!

Scott: If it was strictly just a matter of quality of writing / contribution to literature Davis would be less than 10 to 1 odds in my book. But this is the Nobel, which seems congenitally disposed to hate the kinds of writing Davis does: small, abstract, weird, impossible-to-define, absurd, apolitical. I think maybe the last writer like this they honored was Gao Xingjian (2000) but he writes these gigantic novels that are pretty much the exact opposite of what Davis does, and he’s also Chinese, which probably didn’t hurt.

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John Ashbery 101 to 1

Emily: Dear John: I’m on your team. Sure, the odds are high against you, but you’ve been writing influential poetry in America for decades. American poetry wouldn’t look the same without you. You’re beloved by many Europeans! Do your poems respond to political strife? Have you ruffled the feathers of an oppressive regime? While those things are not past your talents, dear John, your poetry has chosen, instead, to grapple with art, to search the interior, to stretch language. And I adore it. Love, Emily.

Dear Swedish Academy: Please seriously consider American poet John Ashbery for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s getting on in years. And he’s just swell. Yours, Emily

Scott: Emily, I really respect this outpouring of enthusiasm for Ashbery. I’m touched! In a way I’d kind of love for it to be him, but I’d also kind of hate for it to be him in a sort of poetry version of if Philip Roth got it (not a great comparison, exactly, but kinda makes sense?).

Emily: I do see what you’re saying, Scott. The Nobel Prize isn’t only about great writing and there are plenty of other ways to celebrate Asbhery. But he’s no Roth, that’s for sure. I guess when I think of a poet winning the Nobel, I often think of Seamus Heaney. And, while I think Ashbery is on par with Heaney as a poet, his political presence and public persona does not hold the same weight. Still, Team John consists of at least one.

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