Why the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature was Such a Surprise


Unlike all other prizes, the Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t release a long list, a shortlist, a list of finalists, or a list of any kind. No one EVER knows who is up for the prize—in fact, we’re so much at a loss for clues each year, that most publications turn to bookies to see who’s betting on whom.

This year’s top contenders according to the Ladbrokes betting sheets were:

  • Haruki Murakami (Japanese novelist and jogger; 4/1 odds)
  • Adonis (Syrian poet, essayist, and translator; 6/1 odds)
  • Philip Roth (American novelist; 7/1 odds)
  • Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist; 10/1 odds)
  • Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright; 20/1 odds)
  • Ko Un (South Korean poet; 20/1 odds)
  • John Banville (Irish novelist; 20/1 odds)

Of course, very rarely do the odds actually predict a winner.

This is what The New Republic had to say about this year’s possible contenders:

Sorry, but These Americans Are Not Going to Win

  • Philip Roth (American novelist; 7/1 odds)
  • Bob Dylan (American songwriter and radio host; 50/1 odds)
  • Richard Ford (American novelist and short story writer; 66/1 odds)
  • Cormac McCathy (American novelist and screenwriter; 66/1 odds)
  • Joan Didion (American novelist and essayist; 66/1 odds)
  • Ursula Le Guin (American novelist and wizard; 66/1 odds)

We’re due! We really are. An American hasn’t won the Nobel since Toni Morrison won in freaking 1993. But 2016 is not America’s year. For one thing, any American who won would probably have to say something about the Age of Trump or whatever in their Nobel lecture. And don’t get me wrong: The Nobel Committee would love nothing more than to send a passive-aggressive signal to America by awarding the prize to someone who stands for everything Donald Trump opposes. But none of these elder statesmen and -women really fits that bill. That none of these Americans can really claim the mantle of The One True Great American Novelist makes it even harder.

The prize for literature was originally supposed to be announced last week but, for reasons unknown, was postponed. Some believe this reflected an inability on the judges part to come to a consensus. According to The Guardian:

The choice of Dylan follows speculation about disagreement amongst the judging panel. The prize was expected to be announced last week, in the same week as the science medals, and the Academy’s Per Wästberg said the different date was a matter of logistics. But Bjorn Wiman, cultural pages editor at Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, told the South China Morning Post that “if you ask me, it’s absolutely not a ‘calendar’ issue. This is a sign there’s a disagreement in the process to select a winner.”

Major writers believed to have been in the running for the award included the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the American Don DeLillo and the Japanese Haruki Murakami.

As for why U.S. authors so rarely win the prestigious prize, we need only look at the Nobel Peace Prize Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl’s 2008 comment:

“…the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature … That ignorance is restraining.”

So why Dylan? And why now?

Speculation on this decision runs rampant. Some believe the war in Syria is just to raw. Others believe it’s political machinations at play. Still others think that it was time for Dylan, 75, to get his due. It will be interesting to see how (and if) he responds.

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