Sunday, October 03, 2010

Predicting the Nobel

Last year I predicted that Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé would be the 2009 Nobel laureate in literature. Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller won instead. According to my calculations, a woman writer in Spanish was the likely choice, and a poet had not been awarded the prize since Wislawa Szymborska was recognized in 1996.

According to Ian Crouch in the New Yorker’s book blog, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is the current betting favorite at four to one. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami trails at seven to one. The leading English-language candidates are Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, tied at eighteen to one.

I stand by my earlier prediction that a Spanish-language writer is overdue for the Nobel. Mexico’s Octavio Paz was the last award-winner from the Spanish-speaking world, in 1990, succeeding Camilo José Cela of Spain by a year. Both Paz and Cela were in their seventies when they won the prize and had written their masterpieces decades earlier.

A British oddsmaker lists the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as the leading Spanish-language candidate at odds of twenty-five to one. Vargas Llosa, however, is a man of the Right, which pretty nearly disqualifies him from consideration. [Update: Right on target, moron.—DGM] Nicaraguan liberation theologian Ernesto Cardinal [see below] and Spanish novelist Luis Goytisolo Gay are next at thirty to one.

Since the Nobel committee did its duty last year by picking a woman, they are off the hook this year. My guess is that a man will get the prize. If the winner is to be a poet from South America, though, my prediction is Juan Gelman of Argentina. He is not given any chance at all by the Ladbrokes oddsmakers, whose bottom choice is Bob Dylan at one hundred fifty to one.

Two years ago Gelman captured the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world. He has also involved himself in Left activism. He belonged to Movimiento Peronista Montonero, a political affiliation that ended in his exile to Italy in 1976. (He returned to Argentina in 1988.) He is also a Jewish writer who fits the Left’s preferred image of the Jew—a victim of the Right. His son and pregnant daughter-in-law were among the “disappeared.” After the military coup that overthrew Isabel Perón in 1976, they were taken into custody and executed. Nearly a quarter century later, Gelman tracked down his granddaughter in Uruguay. She had been given to a pro-government family.

Gelman’s poetry makes all the correct “Noises”:

those steps: are they looking for him?
that car: is it stopping at his door?
those men in the street: are they after him?
there are various noises in the night

day breaks upon those noises
nobody detains the sun
nobody detains the rooster’s crow
nobody detains the day

there will be nights and days although he won’t see them
nobody detains the revolution
nothing detains the revolution
there are various noises in the night

those steps: are they looking for him?
that car: is it stopping at his door?
those men in the street: are they after him?
there are various noises in the night

day breaks upon these noises
nobody detains the day
nobody detains the sun
nobody detains the rooster’s crow
This year the Nobel Prize in literature will go to Juan Gelman. Who will take my bet?

Update, I: M. A. Orthofer of the Literary Saloon (to which I typically do not link because of its persistent and sloppy anti-Israel bias) disagrees with my prediction, because Juan Gelman “simply doesn’t have enough of an international presence, especially compared to the other poets considered contenders.” As if Elfriede Jelinek (2004’s winner) or J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008’s) were household names. Orthofer is also convinced that my prediction is “very tongue in cheek,” and remarks that its humor might be more respectable if I spelled the name of Ernesto Cardenal Martínez correctly. I confess that I negligently copied and pasted the name from the Ladbrokes site; my library is sadly deficient in liberation theologians; not that I miss them overmuch. The only thing humorous is that anyone would consider a liberation theologian for a Nobel Prize in anything. Still, I can assure Orthofer and readers of A Commonplace Blog that my prediction is not intended to be tongue in cheek, “very” or otherwise.

Update, II: As of Tuesday morning the 5th, the Kenyan postcolonialist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a self-described literary and social activist (of the Marxist-Leninist variety), is the current betting favorite. (I can easily imagine the Nobel committee’s giving him the award, if only to bite their thumb at Dinesh D’Souza.) Cormac McCarthy has surged into second place, while Tranströmer has fallen back. Ernesto Cardinal [sic] is no better than the fifth most favored Spanish-language writer (not really, in his case). The Australian novelist Gerald Murnane has come from nowhere to surge into contention. If he were to win, and if his Nobel Prize were to create new readers of his work (like me), then the award might actually have served a purpose other than to ratify the international Left’s claim to exclusive ownership of world literature.

Update, III: Who says that literary critics have no influence? As of 5:00 EST on the afternoon of October 5th, Juan Gelman has climbed to within striking distance of the leaders in the betting, currently getting odds of fifteen to one. He now leads the early favorite Tomas Tranströmer. I almost hope he does not win, despite my prediction that he will. I don’t want that prediction to become my only claim to fame! In January, tongue planted very much in cheek, I prophesied that an American would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Go, McCarthy! Go, Roth!

25 comments:

David Gruber said...

D.G.,

This essay nicely encapsulates the calculations of political correctness (for lack of a better term) that, at the very least, seem to inform the choice of the Nobel Committee when it comes to awarding their prize for literature. I can't offer to take you up on your bet, as I'm sure you've thought much more thoroughly about the issue than I have, but I would be interested in hearing who you think should win the Nobel Prize for Literature, were all political/redistributive considerations put aside.

D. G. Myers said...

Philip Roth, William Trevor, Les Murray, Mario Vargas Llosa, Amos Oz.

Paul said...

Philip Roth! Philip Roth! Philip Roth!

David Gruber said...

Thanks, it's an interesting list. I don't know Vargas Llosa's work at all: can you recommend a place to start?

Amateur Reader said...

From an Oct. 1 Associated Press article:

"But I think it's important to point out it's not a result of an agenda. I think it's more a question of ... subconscious bias," Englund said. The panelists, as Europeans, find it easier to relate to European writers, he said.

"That is a problem," he said. "But we are aware of it."

My summary: Nobel literature chairman declares "We are incompetent!"

dan m. said...

I would love for Murakami to win, as he's my favorite living author, but I'm afraid too many people read him.

Jonathan said...

Well, according to the Literary Saloon the bookies seem to be liking Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

If you have the patience and are so inclined, Orthofer did a omprehensive breakdown of possible winners yesterday.

D. G. Myers said...

David,

Try Vargas Llosa’s endlessly inventive Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a successful attempt to do for the novel what Romancing the Stone failed to do for the movies.

David Gruber said...

D.G.,

Thanks for the suggestion, I will pick it up.

Herman Blinkhoben said...

Let's agree on the main thing first: Phillip Roth!
Now, one language has never had one and that is Dutch. Considering the jury always tries to make itself noticed politically and that Holland has just chosen a well right of center government with an anti-immigration agenda, we might see a Dutch author: Hella Haase or Harry Mulish.
Or also not bad Laszlo Krazsnahorkai from Hungary. Right wing biggots there too.
If all this fails: Phillip Roth!
Adonis is a joke.
Did I mention Phillip Roth. I must have, no?

D. G. Myers said...

Herman,

Many thanks for the recommendations! I am a complete ignoramus about contemporary Dutch fiction, except for the novels of Carl Friedman.

D. G. Myers said...

By the way, I wouldn’t count out Adunis or Ali Ahmad Said Asbar. Only one Arabic-language writer (the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz) has won the Nobel Prize in literature, and that was two decades ago.

Tom B. said...

There has been sudden movement on Cormac McCarthy, who is 8/1 at Ladbrokes.

Jerard said...

The prize should be given to William H Gass who tackles big themes in a totally original way (The Heart of the Heart of the Country, The Tunnel etc) and has never had the recognition he deserves.

D. G. Myers said...

W. H. Gass is a great critic.

M.A.Orthofer said...

I assume you'll be amused to see that among the names added today to Ladbrokes list is ... Juan Gelman (he, and John Ashbery -- and John le Carré -- are late additions to the original list). At solid 15/1 odds, no less. Apparently you've made a convincing case (though you're not the only one touting him, tongue in cheek or not). As to why I think he won't get it, I emphasized his limited international presence, not his not being a household name (how many writers are household names, after all ?) -- which both Jelinek and Le Clézio certainly did have (by "international" I mean a presence in a variety of countries and languages -- and works by both Jelinek and especially Le Clézio has long been available in even English. Unlike those (and practically all Nobel laureates) Gelman hasn't been widely translated, and isn't much of a presence internationally.

Not that this is the place for this discussion, but I would like to note my objection to your characterization of me, or rather what you perceive as my: "persistent and sloppy anti-Israel bias". I recall your reaction to one post of mine (about a piece about "Khirbet Khizeh" -- which, as I then explained, I found to be a knee-jerk (and lazy) reaction) but am not sure where else I seem to have offended (i.e. how I have been persistent in this supposed bias).

Obviously I am a subjective analyst of my own work, but as best I can tell my weblog and reviews are consistently (and equal opportunity) critical across most of the spectrums, and Israeli matters (and books and authors) don't seem to get judged any differently than any others.

Anyway: I hope you got in on the Gelman action early, to take advantage of the odds while they're still good .....

D. G. Myers said...

Naw, there was no way to bet on Gelman before he was on the boards. If I could’ve gotten 200:1 odds, I would’ve taken ’em.

As to the anti-Israel bias of the Literary Saloon. Point me to some posts in which you have pushed back against the anti-Israel bias of the Left and I should be glad to revise my characterization.

Now, about your squeezing my “humor” between quotation marks. . . .

M.A.Orthofer said...

Part I: (sorry, your comments-box limits responses to ca. 4000 characters, so I had to split this up into two)

Hmm, I'm no great fan of the counter-argument: I'm accused of "anti-Israel bias" (with no accompanying citation of the persistent (and sloppy) examples), and I'm the one who is supposed to prove the contrary -- and that by pointing to posts where I: "have pushed back against the anti-Israel bias of the Left" ... ? Seems a bit too much of a black/white, us/them divison: if you're not for us you're against us, so prove you're against those who are against us ….. But, okay, I'll play. Or try to. See, the thing is, I run a literary website. Book reviews, literary news (Nobel Prize speculation !). Looking over the mentions of "Israel" at the Literary Saloon, most of the posts seem to me entirely anodyne: the usual mentions of local literary fairs and prizes, the issues they have with two major booksellers dominating the market, occasional references to interesting new (but not translated into English) books, deaths of notable authors. And usually I just report (and briefly quote) rather than put in much of my two cents.

I don't do politics too much. Of course, some (or a great deal of) politics creeps into some of these things, but I steer clear of most of it. There are a few issues I do feel and express myself very strongly about: democracy, absolute freedom of speech, equal fundamental human rights. Among the states whose cases I get on most -- for book banning, publication-hindering, censorship (and, occasionally, the treatment of their citizens -- though I usually only mention that incidentally) -- have been Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and Iran (who run my (irony alert) favorite ministry, the (combined !) one for Culture and Islamic Guidance (yes, I love mentioning that every chance I get -- but note also that I'm one of the few prominent literary websites that actively reports on (and reviews) contemporary Persian fiction, from writers both in Iran and abroad)).

M.A.Orthofer said...

Part II:
Not surprisingly, some of the Israel-mentions at the Literary Saloon point to clashes with the issues I feel strongly about: the law prohibiting the importation of Arabic-language books from enemy states (such as Lebanon and Syria) is one I have repeatedly denounced: I know there are arguments for such bans, but, like I say, I'm for the completely free movement of speech (and I'll accept the cost of having hate and propaganda speech slip in along with all the rest). But, since you ask for a push-back against what you call "the anti-Israel bias of the Left" (I'm really not a fan of these kinds of labels, by the way), how about this mention:

http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/201006a.htm#pz2

of a call for cultural/educational boycott of Israel this June ? In keeping with my free-exchange-of-ideas-and-words ideals I've always expressed opposition to those. Sure, not a ringing ra-ra-Israel endorsement, but certainly not blind support of the factions you see opposed to it. (More typical of my coverage, by the way, is another post from that week (when the Gaza flotilla fiasco took place):

http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/201006a.htm#py6

-- though I don't know if you see linking (approvingly, no less -- I call it "sensible") to Amos Oz's op-ed puts me in bed with the biased Left.)

I'm hard pressed to find any post where I actually take a stand on a particular controversial issue (and too lazy to sift through everything), but maybe this:

http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/200908c.htm#nt1

will do, taking on an article about the Farouk Hosni bid to head UNESCO last year (he was Egypt's culture minister, who (in)famously said he'd burn any Israeli books he found in Egyptian libraries -- which I certainly did write disapprovingly of in earlier posts). Since I don't simply denounce Hosni here -- indeed, denounce Stock for the poor way he goes about denouncing Hosni (and Egypt) -- maybe this is the sort of thing tainted by some anti-Israel bias; I hope it's clear that what I have problems with is the poor argumentation on offer -- generalizations and labels without any concrete examples; I think we've gotten way too lazy with our shorthand (such as: "Left", etc.). Hmmm, like tarring someone as having an "anti-Israel bias" on the basis of a knee-jerk reaction to a blog-post …..

Sorry to hear you didn't get in on the Gelman-action in time -- now it's Ulrich Holbein who has shot to near the top (he hit 5/1 a short while ago), another author with even less international exposure ….. As to Ngũgĩ, you might want to give him a chance (literarily, not just Nobel-wise): his Marxist-Leninism (or rather, his spin on it) is largely behind him (and more forgivable than most, I think, given his circumstances), and "Wizard of the Crow" is a nice piece of work.

M.A.Orthofer said...

Part III
I'm hard pressed to find any post where I actually take a stand on a particular controversial issue (and too lazy to sift through everything), but maybe this:

http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/200908c.htm#nt1

will do, taking on an article about the Farouk Hosni bid to head UNESCO last year (he was Egypt's culture minister, who (in)famously said he'd burn any Israeli books he found in Egyptian libraries -- which I certainly did write disapprovingly of in earlier posts). Since I don't simply denounce Hosni here -- indeed, denounce Stock for the poor way he goes about denouncing Hosni (and Egypt) -- maybe this is the sort of thing tainted by some anti-Israel bias; I hope it's clear that what I have problems with is the poor argumentation on offer -- generalizations and labels without any concrete examples; I think we've gotten way too lazy with our shorthand (such as: "Left", etc.). Hmmm, like tarring someone as having an "anti-Israel bias" on the basis of a knee-jerk reaction to a blog-post …..

Sorry to hear you didn't get in on the Gelman-action in time -- now it's Ulrich Holbein who has shot to near the top (he hit 5/1 a short while ago), another author with even less international exposure ….. As to Ngũgĩ, you might want to give him a chance (literarily, not just Nobel-wise): his Marxist-Leninism (or rather, his spin on it) is largely behind him (and more forgivable than most, I think, given his circumstances), and "Wizard of the Crow" is a nice piece of work.

D. G. Myers said...

M.A.O.,

This is neither the time nor the place for this argument. Let’s schedule a blog-and-forth. Here is the issue, as you neatly frame it:

Not surprisingly, some of the Israel-mentions at the Literary Saloon point to clashes with the issues I feel strongly about: the law prohibiting the importation of Arabic-language books from enemy states (such as Lebanon and Syria) is one I have repeatedly denounced: I know there are arguments for such bans, but, like I say, I'm for the completely free movement of speech (and I'll accept the cost of having hate and propaganda speech slip in along with all the rest).

My questions. How many Hebrew-language books from Israel are permitted in Arab states such as Lebanon and Syria? And have you “repeatedly denounced” their prohibition? Or, for that matter, the wildly popular and widely disseminated state-sponsored antisemitic literature there and in Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

M.A.Orthofer said...

Again, I'm not really a big fan of the when-they-let-us-build-churches-in-Saudi-Arabia-then-we-can-talk-mosques-in-the-US type of argument (which is what this amounts to). Do you really want Syrian practices to be the point of reference -- on anything ? I've mentioned the Israeli prohibition because, admirably, it's being debated in Israel (hence news coverage to link to, etc.); unfortunately, I don't think there's much demand for Hebrew-language books in most Arab countries -- and I have mentioned the difficulties there have been with Israeli authors getting published there in Arabic translation. But again, it's a matter of what information is readily accessible -- and a lot of this unfortunately just isn't widely discussed. (I do pretty often chime in whenever any Arabic country holds a book fair, since there's always an article or two about the books they wouldn't allow to be displayed ...) Quid-pro-quo / comprehensively "fair-and-balanced" reporting just isn't feasible, I think -- but I like to think I am … catholic in my criticism (and yes, it tends to be criticism). Though yes, a few regimes/countries escape me -- Jordan, doesn't seem to have come in for much criticism. Mongolia, too. But otherwise, I range pretty far and wide.

D. G. Myers said...

Do you really want Syrian practices to be the point of reference—on anything?

No, but I do want you to admit and abandon your double standard.

Carlos A. said...

I almost never comment on blogs, but I'm so terribly impressed with the way Orthofer has handled himself in this argument. So patient, so fair-minded.

I think Myers (patient too, but a little less fair) puts an unfair burden of proof on him.

In any case, I'm glad to see the two "adversaries" have this conversation, and the larger ongoing one: a dialogue on literature that doesn't descend to the shit-flinging of youtube commenters.

Thank you both.

D. G. Myers said...

You are right about Mr Orthofer’s patience, Carlos, and about his fair-mindedness (given his preexisting and largely unconscious double standard toward Israel).

What you are not right about, though, is the “unfair burden of proof.”

Perhaps because I labor in a cultural field in which Leftist thought is the common opinion—rarely challenged, rarely examined—I am aware both of the need to be “fair” to the other side (you must either accept the fact that most contemporary writers are on the Left, including many whom you admire, or you must give up reading contemporary literature altogether) and the impossibility of ever taking the truisms and slogans of my own side for granted.

To be a conservative and a Zionist in an intellectual setting is constantly to be thrown on the defensive, to stagger under “unfair burdens of proof.”

Look, I take as a given that the state of Israel is an imperfect democracy surrounded by despotic regimes. I take it for granted that women, gays, and religious and ethnic minorities (even Arab Muslims!) are better off there, politically and economically, than anywhere else in the Middle East. What I cannot take for granted is that the Left takes any of this for granted too.

One example. For me, it is glaringly obvious that the debate within Israel itself over the prohibition of Arab-language materials from hostile states, which Mr Orthofer allows is “admirable,” is the heart of the matter. What Mr Orthofer and you and I are doing is dangerous where it is even possible in the Arab world. And Mr Orthofer apparently cannot see the contradiction. The very debate within Israel establishes that Israel is already completely committed to the “completely free movement of speech” that Mr Orthofer calls for.

To me, that is pretty impressive. And it needs to be said now and then, especially in the teeth of a Left that prefers to demonize Israel incessantly. That’s what I mean by pushing back against the anti-Israel bias of the Left.

And I don’t think that’s an “unfair burden” for someone, like Mr Orthofer, whose deepest commitments depend upon the sort of freedoms taken for granted in Israel, and who is otherwise, as you rightly say, so fair-minded.