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Is Cormac McCarthy really headed for the Nobel?

October 4, 2010 |  1:15 pm

Cormacmccarthy_ap On Monday, news started buzzing that Cormac McCarthy, chronicler of a blasted and violent early American West and, more recently, a dystopic frozen future, might be under consideration for the Nobel Prize in Literature, whose announcement is planned for Thursday. British wagering company Ladbrokes has tracked McCarthy's odds rising from 66-to-1 to 8-to-1.

That makes him the highest-ranked American, unless you count Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who as I was typing moved from second place to first; wa Thiong'o has been a resident of the United States since his exile from Kenya in the late 1970s.

Other Americans currently in the top 20 are Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates, both 18-to-1, Philip Roth at 20-to-1, E.L. Doctorow at 22-to-1 and Don Delillo at 25-to-1.

All of this is, of course, a bit silly. Who places bets on literary contests, exactly? I read like it's my job (oh, right, it is my job), but do I want to put my money on one author against another? If I did, I would surely go for one whose writing I like, which has no connection to whatever judgments go into making a smart bet. And I'm guessing I'm not the only avid reader who would be a lousy, or reluctant, gambler.

That any American writers appear on Ladbroke's list at all may be wishful thinking. In Monday's paper, David L. Ulin notes that the Swedish Academy is "notoriously unpredictable" in awarding the Nobel Prize in literature, and in 2008 a key figure there proclaimed that American literature is "too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world."

Ulin's starting point is the Nobel, but he looks at the coming literary award season, and asks what it means. He continues:

October is as close as the book world has to an awards season. Five days after the Nobel Prize is announced, the Man Booker Prize will be awarded in London; the next morning, at Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah, Ga., the finalists for the National Book Awards will be named.

It's a lot of pomp and circumstance for a corner of the culture that seems increasingly uncertain of its role in contemporary society, where the slow, immersive satisfactions of reading are easily overwhelmed by the onslaught of the information stream. In such a landscape, readers look to awards for reassurance, as arbiters of whether a book or author is any good. Yet while that's understandable, it is, in its way, another kind of smokescreen, distracting us from the conversation about literature in favor of a more competitive frame.

I sort of hope the new Nobel literature laureate is someone I haven't heard of, writing in a language I can't read. Before Oct. 8, 2009, I'd never heard of Herta Müller; now I know that I should read her books. Which I'll do, someday, just as soon as I stop being distracted by the literary awards season.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Cormac McCarthy. Credit: Derek Shapton/ Random House

 

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