These Authors Probably Won’t Win the Nobel. Read Them Anyway.


Predicting the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a fool’s errand. I should know: For the past seven years, I’ve tried to guess the winner based on odds from the British sportsbook Ladbrokes and never once gotten it right. I have gotten it spectacularly wrong several times, however—including in 2016, when I said that Bob Dylan would definitely not win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he did days later.

Despite this track record, I continue to make predictions about the Prize. Why? Two reasons. One is that it’s a fun, low-stakes way to engage with the literary world, which most people take way too seriously. And the other is that it remains the single best global survey of literature. Despite recent scandals, controversy, and silliness (here, I mean the Dylan win), the Nobel has maintained its place as not just the world’s most important literary award, but its most important cultural one.

When this year’s winner is announced on October 6, the laureate will most likely be a surprise. (Only living authors are eligible, meaning that unfortunately, the recently deceased Javier Marías and Hilary Mantel are no longer in contention.) As I write this, the French novelist Pierre Michon is the front-runner, according to the bookies—but that hardly means anything. Last year’s winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah, wasn’t even listed as a contender; other writers, such as the Syrian poet Adunis and the American Twitter user Joyce Carol Oates, have spent years as leading possibilities before disappearing from the running.

The following authors have never won the prize, and they probably won’t win this year. But their names keep coming up for a reason: They have, over the past several decades, built up an astonishing and influential body of work. There is something a little foolish about caring what a stuffy group of Swedes decides to canonize. And yet, the best argument for the Nobel is as a celebration of worthy and neglected works of global literature, many of which fly below the radar in the United States. The five books below, one from each of these authors, should make that case abundantly clear.

Aliss at the Fire, by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Dreamlike is a word often applied to Fosse, a Norwegian novelist and playwright, and in Aliss at the Fire, he is at his most surreal and circuitous. Unfolding in what basically amounts to one long, swirling sentence, the novel is a classic Scandinavian story—which is to say, it is about a family and a fjord. The book begins in 2002 with Signe, an elderly woman, lying on a bench, gazing out at the water. She is quickly transported back to 23 years earlier, when her husband, Asle, disappeared from the same spot. The narrative quickly shatters, moving backwards and forwards across generations—spanning multiple family tragedies, all involving the fjord and the house that Signe still lives in. Fosse is often compared to Henrik Ibsen, since he is best known as a playwright and is very depressing. But in Aliss at the Fire, he’s more reminiscent of William Faulkner—who, unlike Ibsen, won the Nobel Prize. Like Faulkner’s best works, Aliss at the Fire is about the inescapability of the past and how history reverberates mysteriously across generations. Through voices and narratives that are constantly interrupting and interfering with one another, Fosse captures the grief—and love—that can never be put into words.

Simple Passion, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie

It is perhaps more difficult to select just one work from Ernaux than from any other writer on this list. She is in many ways a pioneer of the autofiction that Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk have brought to recent prominence. Her works mine her personal experience and make up “a total novel of life,” as Jamie Hood wrote recently. She may be currently best known for Happening, a searing account of an illegal abortion she had as a university student in France in 1963, which has gained new prominence and resonance after a recent film adaptation and the Dobbs decision. Works such as The Years, the closest thing to a complete memoir she has written, explode with perspective and voice. But Simple Passion, her lightly fictionalized account of a tumultuous, obsessive affair she had with an Eastern European businessman in the early ’90s, is claustrophobic. Ernaux mostly just sits around and waits for the married man to show up and then leave again. She observes that the rest of her life is just a “means of filling in time between two meetings.” And yet, it is a powerful depiction of being lost—or perhaps enveloped—by another person and, with apologies to Graham Greene and Anne Serre, possibly the best book about an affair ever written.

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ is arguably the most important and influential African novelist working today. The author of dozens of novels, plays, and works of literary criticism—including Decolonising the Mind, a profound work of post-colonial literature—he has been for decades the subject of Nobel speculation. Alas, last year’s decision to award the Prize to Gurnah makes Ngũgĩ’s selection this year less likely—a tragedy, given that he is in his mid-80s. Although he is perhaps best known for anti-colonial novels, most notably Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross, and A Grain of Wheat, I’ve selected Wizard of the Crow. An uproarious and biting satirical allegory of contemporary Africa, the novel’s central character, Kumiti, starts life as an unemployed MBA graduate before undergoing a series of transformations that end in him impersonating a sorcerer—the wizard of the novel’s title—as a means of resisting the book’s stand-in for the World Bank. A manic book that is frequently labeled as magical realism, Wizard of the Crow is also a love letter to African storytelling—it was, in fact, written to be read aloud.

Frontier, by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

It is almost impossible to describe what the Chinese writer Can does, or why it works. If Fosse is dreamlike, Can—who uses a genderless pseudonym that can suggest both “dirty snow and “pure snow”—is more akin to that odd, liminal space between being awake and being asleep. Her novels and stories remind me a bit of drinking too much NyQuil—a feeling where one is simultaneously exhausted and manic. In Frontier, Can pushes the bounds of narrative. This is a book that in many ways resembles abstract painting more than a traditional novel: It has far more in common with, say, Etel Adnan than it does with Charles Dickens. Still, in Frontier, Can roughly tracks, in a way that’s reminiscent of traditional narrative, the decision of her main character, Liujin, to live in a place called “Pebble Town.” There, she explores what sometimes resembles a surreal version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown. She talks with townspeople and encounters strange phenomena—a garden, for instance, that grows “in the air.” But Can is an experimental writer in the truest and best sense of the word. Frontier is a book that challenges our sense of what fiction and narrative should be—and that would push the boundaries of what the Swedish Academy considers literature.

The Plains, by Gerald Murnane

Four years ago, The New York Times’s Mark Binelli wrote that “a strong case could be made for Murnane, who recently turned 79, as the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of.” Murnane, an Australian, is admittedly a bit of an eccentric, and culturally remote. He lives in the middle of nowhere in Australia: Goroke, Victoria, population about 300, where, according to Binelli, he occasionally tends bar and hangs out at the local men’s shed (a kind of state-run cultural center aimed at reducing loneliness among the elderly). All of this makes Murnane fun to talk about, but he is also an extraordinary writer. The Plains, his masterpiece, is ostensibly about a Murnane-like figure: A filmmaker travels to a remote town intending to make a movie that unlocks the mysteries buried within the place. He instead spends the next two decades mostly in the library, studying the meaning of the landscape, which, he observes, is “a convenient source of metaphors for those who know that men invent their own meanings.” This is, more or less, what the novel focuses on: the beauty and strangeness of how we eke meaning out of our surroundings. It is also an extremely funny book, at once aware of the absurdity of that process and in awe of it.

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