On Thursday, October 5, the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. This will be the 110th Literature Prize since it was founded in 1901. The world’s most prestigious literary prize is awarded every year to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” according to the will of Alfred Nobel. Since the definitions of “ideal direction” and “literature” remain open to interpretation by the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, the vagueness of Alfred Nobel’s words can lead to polarising winners like last year’s surprise Bob Dylan.
The Academy was hailed for breaking from convention by selecting a songwriter as much as it was chastised for diluting the prestige of the award. For his part, Bob Dylan took them and the world on a rollercoaster ride, which might point to a more conservative selection this year. After a long period of silence, the singer finally said he would definitely attend the award ceremony “if at all possible,” eventually skipped it and sent a recorded speech that later faced charges of plagiarism.
Speculation is rife about who the winner this year might be. The wealthiest literature prize in the world, with a cash component of nearly $900,000, is also the most secretive. Unlike most literary prizes such as the Man Booker Prize, the Nobel Committee does not release a longlist or shortlist of potential winners. The list of nominees and all deliberations are kept secret for 50 years, bowing to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation. All we know is that this year the Nobel Committee received and approved 240 proposals, resulting in 195 candidates, one of whom will win the prize.
As always, a time-honoured tradition of betting on potential Nobel winners can give us a peek into who could be taking home the prize this year. The gambling site Ladbrokes is offering odds on writers who could win the prize in 2017, throwing up some old favourites who might finally get their moment in the (Scandinavian) sun.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The Kenyan writer has been a hot favourite to win for many years among literary critics and with odds of 4/1 in his favour, he’s once again the frontrunner for the prize. Ngugi’s debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa, in 1964. Since then, he has gone on to write a body of work that includes several novels, plays, short stories and essays. His books have been translated into 30 languages.
Ngugi is a strong critic of Western colonialism and laid bare the horrors of British occupation in East Africa in many of his novels. He has repeatedly urged the decolonisation of the African mind and on the publication of his third novel, A Grain of Wheat in 1967, he gave up writing in English and began to write in his native Gikuyu instead.
When he turned a critical eye on the Kenyan government, he was jailed without trial. While incarcerated, Ngugi wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross, on prison-issued toilet paper. Forced out of the country after his release, Ngugi dedicated himself to political writing, and only published another novel, The Wizard of the Crow, in 2006, after a period of 20 years. If he wins, he’ll be the first black African writer to be awarded in 30 years.
Coming in as the second most bet upon writer with odds of 5/1, Japanese author Murakami needs very little introduction to readers of contemporary fiction. His books have been translated into at least 50 languages and have sold millions of copies, both within Japan and internationally. Infused with themes of loneliness and alienation, his dream-like, melancholic writing style has won him fans across the world. From the seductively spooky Sputnik Sweetheart to the complex IQ84, everyone has their favourite Murakami novel.
Murakami has been topping the betting charts for years, yet many critics think it might be more wishful thinking than a realistic prediction. His immense popularity among lay readers might hurt his chances more than help with the Nobel Committee.
If Canadian writer Margaret Atwood were to win this year, she would only be the 15th woman writer ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. With odds of 6/1 in her favour, the prolific author could stand a chance this year with her dystopian fiction becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world. Atwood has written more than 50 novels, poetry collections, children’s literature and non-fiction books, but her most famous work arguably remains The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. A novel about a future where women are treated as no more than baby-making machines, with no reproductive rights or personal freedoms, the book has been recently adapted into an award-winning and widely watched TV show.
Hailed as a trailblazer in speculative and feminist fiction writing, Atwood is also an environmental activist and in keeping with her futuristic themes, conceptualised a remote robotic writing technology, known as the LongPen.
Eighty-four-year-old Ko Un has published over 100 books of poetry but what makes Korea’s most famous poet truly astounding is the extraordinary life he has led. Born to a peasant family in South Korea, he began writing at the age of 12 after finding a book by Han Ha-un, a nomadic Korean poet with leprosy. The death of most of his family in the Korean War of 1950 found him working as a grave digger for a living while he was still a teenager. Traumatised by the massacres, he poured acid into his ear, trying to block out the noises of the war, leaving him permanently deaf in one ear.
In the early 1970s, Ko Un attempted suicide by drinking poison. Political activism saved him, although his opposition to the military regime led to four spells of imprisonment. Through it all, Ko UN continued to write poetry. His most impressive work remains the 30-volume Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives, part of a promise he made that every person he met in prison would be immortalised in a poem. With odds of 8/1 in his favour, a victory will make him the first Korean writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Sharing odds of 8/1 in his favour with Ko Un, Chinese author Yan Lianke rounds off the top five contenders for the top prize. The writer has published 14 novels and over 40 short stories, several of which have been banned in China.
Yan Lianke pulls no punches in satirising the Communist regime in China, which culminated in his most popular novel till date, The Four Books, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. The book was rejected by 20 different publishers for fear they would be shut down because of the its unflinching portrayal of The Great Leap Forward, one of the most devastating campaigns in China’s history that left 40 million people dead from starvation.
Other writers in the running, if the betting public is to be trusted, include Israeli novelist and journalist Amos Oz, Italian scholar and writer Claudio Magris ,and Spanish novelist Javier Marias.
The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday, October 5, at 4.30 pm IST.
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is from Kenya, not Nigeria as originally stated.