Thursday, May 07, 2009

How to pick a Nobel winner

Over at the A Pair of Ragged Claws, the Australian Literary Review blog hosted by the Sydney Australian, Stephen Romei asks whether Peter Carey will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Describing him as “well decorated,” Romei points out that Carey is the only novelist beside J. M. Coetzee to win two Man Booker Prizes (in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang).

Oddly enough, however, when Romei listed the ten best Australian novels, as selected in 2003 in a readers’ poll conducted by the country’s public broadcaster, Carey was not named:

A. B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (1981)
George Johnston, My Brother Jack (1964)
Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding (1918, a children’s book)
John Marsden, Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993, a teen novel)
Sally Morgan, My Place (1987)
Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930)
Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians (1894, a children’s book)
Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955)
Tim Winton, Cloudstreet (1991)
————, Dirt Music (2001)

Still, Romei observes that Australia is “due,” and advances Carey as the most likely choice (he is sixty-six, while Patrick White, the country’s first winner, was sixty-one when he was awarded the prize). The poet Les Murray, he adds, is the “bookies’ favorite.”

Intrigued by Romei’s speculations, I did some quick calculations. Since the literature prize returned from a three-year wartime hiatus in 1944, when the Danish novelist Johannes Vilhelm Jensen took home the prize, the winner’s mean age has been 66.6 years. He or she—overwhelmingly more likely he than she—is probably a writer of prose fiction rather than a poet (forty of the former versus eighteen of the latter, with five playwrights and four nonfiction writers added to the mix).

There have been eighteen English-language winners, which means that the Anglophone world has been “decorated” every 3.6 years on average. Tied for second are writers in French and Spanish, who have been awarded the prize eight times apiece—an average of every eight years or so. Five German-language writers have been honored; the average number of years between their awards is just about eleven. Four Russian writers; average, 16.25 years. Twelve writers in other European languages (Hungarian, Portugese, Czech, Yiddish, etc.); average between awards, five and a half. And five winners who wrote in a non-European tongue; average, thirteen even.

Let’s have a look at the last five years. The French novelist Le Clézio won last year; the English-language novelist Doris Lessing in 2007; Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006; the British playwright Harold Pinter in 2005; and Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian playwright and novelist, one of the most undeserving winners in the history of the prize, in 2004. Although poets are “due” to win every 3.6 years, the last time a poet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature was thirteen years ago when Wislawa Szymborska was recognized. (Seamus Heaney had won the previous year.) The last writer of Spanish to win was Octavio Paz in 1990—nineteen years ago.

Romei is right, then, to speak in the language of a schedule, since the prize is apparently awarded by much the same method that the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission is determined—on a rotating basis, as long as Israel and (increasingly) the United States are excluded. Whether Australia is “due” is another question. The most glaring omissions from the roll of recent winners are poets, Spanish-language writers, and women. (Women have won only twice in the past decade.)

The obvious choice, in order to correct these oversights, is the Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé. At sixty-two she is younger than the mean, but within the usual range of the winners. In Poets of Contemporary Latin America (Oxford, 2000), the critic William Rowe says that she is “very much the spokesperson of her generation.” Four of her poems, in the original Spanish, are here. Her Noches de adrenalina (1982) is described by one critic as having “initiated the blossoming of women's poetry in Peru in the last few decades with a boisterous feminism and an unapologetic lewdness expressed both thematically and verbally.” Sounds like just the thing to appeal to the Nobel committee.

Of course, if a poet is wanted the best choice is Murray—perhaps the only true “national” poet remaining. Or if a Spanish-language writer is wanted the better choice would be Ollé’s countryman Mario Vargas Llosa. But Ollé belongs to the Left, while Vargas Llosa is a man of the Right. Chalk up another mark on her side of the ledger.

Anyhow, that is my prediction and I am sticking to it. In October the Nobel Prize in Literature will be presented to Carmen Ollé. You heard it here first.


Unknown said...

Great analysis! You have me convinced! The next time someone asks me who is going to win the Nobel prize I will quote your arguements - hopefully they'll be impressed, even if you do turn out to be wrong!