A literary prize serves two possible purposes for someone like me, who’s a lover of literature. First, it can help you find out new authors/books you should read. Second, it can make you feel good when your favorite author wins a prize. Since I have begun following the Nobel Prize in Literature seriously (which was in 2005), it has sometimes satisfied the second need, but not the first, so far.
Let’s tally the winners: Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tomas Tranströmer, Alice Munro, and Bob Dylan were all laureates I was already familiar with and had read and liked before the prize was handed out to them.
But what about the authors I didn’t know before they won? Well, Orhan Pamuk’s two novels I read were awful (I might give him another chance later on), J. M. G. Le Clézio is boring and tepid, Herta Müller is not bad but she is extremely predictable and cliche in the genre of “political anti-totalitarian” writing, (a far inferior Llosa, one could say), and Mo Yan is probably the worst writer I have ever read, and I read every random book I get my hands on. Many people including M. A. Orthofer seemed to think Dylan winning deprives the Nobel Prize of its seriousness and that “anyone can win”, but personally, I’d rather give the prize to pizza rat rather than Mo Yan.
There was one success story — Svetlana Alexievich. I had never read her before she won Nobel, loved her when I did read her. Which leaves only Patrick Modiano, and I still haven’t read him.
But I’m not writing this to nag about Nobel winners (yeah, yeah, they’re laureates — bite me). I’m writing because the Nobel season has actually enriched my life a lot, and that goes beyond who wins and who doesn’t.
See, starting in 2009 (that wretched year to be an Iranian) I started reading a couple of literary blogs, one of them the Literary Saloon by the aforementioned M. A. Orthofer, and that got me into reading about Nobel predictions, which is apparently quite a science. (Another writer I recommend is Alex Shephard of New Republic and his annual predictions).
According to these people, aside from a set of conditions that look completely arbitrary and ridiculous to this humble reader (the winner must not be retired, too reclusive, etc), the best way to predict Nobel is to look at the bets on the prize, in places such as Ladbrokes. Any sudden movement in the odds show that someone might be in the top 5 shortlist or maybe the winner. But the interesting thing about these predictions is the mention of the so called “perennials”, writers who are always present among the “contenders” who might win Nobel this year, people who are always mentioned as possible winners.
In 2009 and 2010 people kept mentioning Tranströmer as someone who will definitely win one day, and I looked him up, and loved everything I could find. I then decided to check other “perennials”. When he won Nobel, many people called him obscure, but I already knew him, thanks to Nobel predictions leading up to it.
And it worked! While Nobel kept giving its coveted Prize to hot garbage like Mo Yan and boring meh choices like Le Clézio and Müller, I read a number of great books and discovered great authors in the “perennial” and “should win” and “might win” sections of the write-ups of prediction articles.
Ismail Kadare: Albanian author. He is not only a great and “deserving” author, he’s exactly my cup of coffee, dealing with topics like totalitarianism and existential despair in stylistically diverse masterpieces. He’s now one of my all-time favorite authors.
William Trevor: Oh my non-existing God, William Trevor. He ranks up there with O Henry, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and Guy de Maupassant as one of the greatest short story authors of all times. The man, who has sadly passed away and shall never win Nobel, was simply a literary giant, dwarfing almost everyone in short story writing, possibly even those giants before him. As much as I love Alice Munro (and I love her a lot) I think Trevor deserved it much more than her. And I wouldn’t have picked up a very expensive book with 1260 pages if he wasn’t frequently mentioned as a Nobel favorite.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Another great writer who writes fantasy and calls it “magical realism” so that boring academic snobs pull their empty heads out of their butts and deign to read him in spite of their literary bigotry. Anyway, he’s awesome. He might still win. He deserves it.
Assia Djebar: Another sad author passing away, she’s not as great as the previous three, but definitely superior to the Dullness Trifecta of Laureates. The Mischief was a masterpiece.
So, I’d say four great authors discovered, two of whom are among my all time favorites, is worth the time and effort reading all those prediction articles. But I’m always equally excited at the potential of finding more authors, and there are lots of authors I need to check and read, and hopefully my success in my new method grows: Peter Handke, Claudio Magris, Peter Nadas, Amos Oz, Richard Ford, Javier Marias, Yan Lianke, Nawal El Saadawi, Nuruddin Farah, John Banville, Jon Fosse, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and Cees Nooteboom. And also Karl Ove Knausgaard. Everyone mentions him mockingly and derisively, but I’m made curious nevertheless.
As you can see, my “to read” list would be far poorer without these names, and that’d be a shame.
So my purpose in writing this is to basically say that if you love literature, follow the Nobel buzz before it happens and read prediction articles, names will stick to your brain and those names are usually far better than the ones that actually end up winning.
As an addendum, while I have no prediction on who will win, I think any of these authors deserve it a lot and I’d be thrilled to see them win, based on the names mentioned in Shephard’s article (linked above):
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Margaret Atwood, Ismail Kadare, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Ursula Le Guin, Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt, Hillary Mantel, and George Saunders, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Roddy Doyle who are not even mentioned.
If I have to select one as my ultimate wish, I’d choose Ursula Le Guin. She’s a science fiction writer, and she’d be the first openly and unambiguously “genre” author who has won the Nobel, and it would represent a further opening of the boundaries of Nobel, the same way the previous two years did, and it would finally end the needless bigotry against genre literature and show that we have finally included that vast and rich area of literature to “canon”. And yeah, an American won last year, but you know when was the last time a science fiction writer won? Yeah, never. While I’d be delighted to see Atwood win, it’d still count less than Le Guin, because she doesn’t embrace the sci-fi label.
(And, parenthetically, writers such as Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, Connie Willis, and others might never be considered for Nobel, but they will be read much longer than 90% of Nobel winners as the classics of our age).
I’d personally choose Cormac McCarthy as the greatest writer among those names. But eh, he doesn’t need Nobel. I’d vote for Le Guin over him.
I might react to the winner like I did last year. Stay tuned.
Image credit: Peter Angritt, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikipedia