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Nobel Literature Prize 2020

Safe choice or scandal? The stakes are high ahead of 2020 Nobel Literature Prize

In his 1895 last will and testament, Swedish scientist and philanthropist Alfred Nobel tasked the Swedish Academy with awarding the Nobel Literature Prize each year
In his 1895 last will and testament, Swedish scientist and philanthropist Alfred Nobel tasked the Swedish Academy with awarding the Nobel Literature Prize each year AFP/File
4 min

Excitement is building in the literary world and all bets are on ahead of the Nobel Prize announcement on Thursday. The 18-member Academy is no stranger to controversy, often opting to shine its spotlight on lesser-known names. But after last year’s scandal, critics say the odds are on a safe contender.

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This year's Nobel Literature Prize – worth 10 million Swedish kronor – (over 950,000 euros) has everyone wondering whether the nod will go to yet another controversial pick or a crowd-pleaser.

The 18-member Swedish Academy's decision to honour Austrian novelist Peter Handke in 2019 unleashed a flood of criticism.

This stemmed from the fact that the author denied Serb atrocities during the war in the former Yugoslavia and never hid his support of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes.

But the Academy, which defended its choice as one based solely on literary merit, is no stranger to controversy.

In 2016, it raised eyebrows with its pick of US rock legend Bob Dylan, who did not acknowledge the prize until weeks later and refused to come to the ceremony. He eventually collect the prize at a ceremony in April 2017.

U.S. musician Bob Dylan performs during on day 2 of The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent, June 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price/File Photo
U.S. musician Bob Dylan performs during on day 2 of The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent, June 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price/File Photo REUTERS/Ki Price/File Photo

This was followed by a rape scandal that erupted in 2017 and tore the Academy apart.

The following year, one of the members of the Academy, Katarina Frostenson was forced to leave after she was found to be the source of leaks of previous winners, prompting the postponement of the 2018 prize -- a first in 70 years.

Revamped committee

The Academy was since been revamped, with the Nobel committee required to take in five external experts to help vet candidates for the literature prize deliberations in 2019 and 2020.

The authors names tossed about in the speculation for this year’s prize include Caribbean-American author Jamaica Kincaid, Canadian poet Anne Carson, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Hungary's Peter Nadas and American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

Canadian poet Anne Carson is seen as a hot tip this year, as well as Joyce Carol Oates and Marilynn Robinson of the US, Israel's David Grossman, Canada's Margaret Atwood and South Korean poet Ko Un.

Punters are meanwhile putting their money on French Guadeloupean writer Maryse Conde, with 5-to-1 odds, just ahead of Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya at 6-to-1 and Japan's Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood at 7-to-1, according to betting site Ladbrokes.

The culture editor of Sweden's biggest daily Bjorn Wiman told the Guardian newspaper he was betting that the Academy would make a "safe choice" after last year’s scandal.

Ideal direction

"They will give the prize to a female author, who is not from Europe, and who is, in the political and ideological and appearance-wise sense, the opposite of Handke," Wiman added.

"If the Academy knows what is good for them, they'll choose Jamaica Kincaid this year," he said enthusiastically.

Writing about themes like colonialism, racism and gender, "her stance on various moral and political issues are absolutely worth listening to today", he told AFP.

She "is exactly the type of person that takes the prize in the idealistic direction that prize founder Alfred Nobel spoke of" in his will which stipulates that the prize is given to "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."

There have been 116 laureates to date, 15 of whom were women, most recently the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the postponed 2018 prize last year.

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