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Betting the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Ladbroke’s, one of those English gambling houses that seem to have a prop for everything, has an extensive board for wagering on who will win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, which apparently is a 4/6 favorite to be announced on Thursday.

It’s been 23 years since an American won, and with each passing year the literary-patriotic drumbeats for another winner grow louder. Frankly, I would be surprised if an American won, as I take the Nobel’s then permanent secretary (edit: now just board member) at his word that the committee favors non-American literature. That said, there are strong candidates (increasingly so the longer the US goes without a win), and one of the three favorites is an American (Thomas Pynchon at 14/1).

The award has been somewhat of a surprise each of the past few years, so the smart money would be to find value down the board. Here’s some ideas for laying down a little green on the matter.

The Favorites

After Pynchon, the American writers with the best odds are Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates at 25/1 each. Of this group I think most would favor McCarthy, but the committee’s social and political agenda make him unlikely. Oates is a fine writer, but ask fifteen people who have read a great deal of Oates to name her best novel and there’s a good chance you get fifteen different answers; the peaks of her corpus just aren’t high enough, though there are many of them.

Roth probably makes the most sense, but some hub-bub over his Man Booker win earlier this year exposed some serious weaknesses in his candidacy—critics don’t like him and the murmurs about his depiction of women are swiftly becoming open dialogue (Naipaul should be grateful that he dodged this javelin and took home his medal when he did). Sadly, I think he isn’t going to ever see the win.

That leaves DeLillo, who has been at the forefront of American literary discontent for nigh on 30 years. White Noise is probably the signal work of American post-modernism and Underworld stands out among early 21st-Century American social novels. Though he’s probably your best bet of these four, I’d look for longer odds and better value.

Middle of the Pack

There’s another foursome in the next tier with  E.L. Doctorow and Maya Angelou coming in at 33/1, and Bob Dylan and Louise Gluck at 50/1. Dylan and Angelou are the glory picks here, but I don’t see the committee going to Angelou next after Morrison and Dylan is a more interesting candidate than he is a serious one (there’s no precedent for the committee to give the award to someone this untraditional).

Louise Gluck would fit the “I’ve never heard of her” profile, and she has plumbed the classical tradition quite beautifully (do yourself a favor sometime and read The Triumph of Achilles). But again, her writing isn’t contemporary or politically urgent, both features the committee favors.

I think Doctorow would be a fantastic pick, but if the folks in Sweden are worried about American navel-gazing, then Doctorow is at a real disadvantage; he has spent the last few decades writing historical fiction about specific moments in American history. So……let’s move along and see if there’s anything in the bargain barrel that strikes us.

The Dark Horses

In this range, laying 10 could get you 800, and I think there isn’t much separating some of these candidates from the shorter odds. All the remaining Americans are at 80/1: Jonathan Littell (dual American-French citizen), Mary Gordon, Paul Auster, Marge Piercy and William H. Gass.

Right at the top I am going to put a line through Littell, just because to my knowledge no one has won a Nobel on the strength of one novel. Paul Auster I think is more popular domestically (and perhaps even provincially in New York City) than he is internationally, so I’m steering clear of that.

Mary Gordon often writes about Christianity…..and let’s just say I don’t see the Nobel getting anywhere near that.

That leaves Piercy and Gass, and I think both of them are plausible long-shots. Piercy’s feminist credentials are as impressive as her body of work, though she hasn’t had a major new work in six years, so it’s hard to answer the “why now?” question the prize so often considers.

So my meager, nationalist little Alexander Hamilton is going on William H. Gass. Not only does Gass have four impressive novels and a novella collection under his belt (The Tunnel is a stunning meditation on history and ego), he is a eminent literary critic and scholar. Major studies on Rilke, metaphor, and the philosophy of literature round out just about the most impressive all-around literary resume one could wish for. As an added bonus, almost no casual American reader even knows who he is, which undoubtedly please those stickler’s in Stockholm


So there’s your tout-sheet. Bet wisely. And by that I mean bet on an obscure Eastern European.