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Nobel Jury Out of Touch as Booker Embraces Americans

Jon Fosse
Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As usual, somebody who really shouldn’t appear in the same sentence with Nobel Prize in Literature is hogging the odds.

Meet Jon Fosse, the angst-filled Norwegian journalist and novelist who turned to playwriting in his 30s and now, at 53, finds himself among the favorites to win this year’s prize.

Over the course of a few days, bookmaker Ladbrokes cut his odds of winning from 100-1 to 9-1.

The favorite at 3-1 is Japan’s Haruki Murakami, who was also the top candidate ahead of last year’s announcement. American Joyce Carol Oates is at 6-1, followed by Hungarian Peter Nadas at 7-1 and South Korean Ko Un and Algerian Assia Djebar at 10-1. Philip Roth trails the pack at 16-1.

Two decades have passed since literature’s Nobel was bestowed upon a U.S. author, and recent changes in the landscape of literary prizes highlight the perversity of this enduring snub to the likes of Roth, Oates, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

Add to that Canada’s Margaret Atwood.

How ironic that in order to maintain its competitive edge, the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize feels compelled to open itself to talent from the very nation Stockholm routinely ignores. Starting this year, any book written in English and published in the U.K. will be eligible.

That will mainly have the effect of opening the prize to Americans, since authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth were already considered.

Bad Idea

For what it’s worth, I think the Man Booker Foundation’s decision is shortsighted.

Admitting U.S. authors betrays the prize’s DNA and risks promoting homogeneity via a certain brand of “global literature” that might hail from anywhere.

Perhaps the most honest prizes are those with the most precisely defined missions. Consider, for instance, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognize books that have made significant contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of diversity.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize celebrates the written word’s power to promote peace, while the newly created Charleston-Chichester Award celebrates a lifetime’s achievement in short fiction.

In their specificity, these prizes remind us of literature’s infinite scope. They also underscore the vastly different qualities that we each seek out as readers -- and, by extension, the prejudices we come armed with.

Thanks to dwindling review coverage and reduced browsing opportunities in brick-and-mortar bookstores, literary prizes have an ever-more-crucial role to play in bringing exceptional literature to the reading public’s attention.

Folio Prize

Yet book prizes themselves operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace. An unstated reason for the Man Booker’s rule change is surely the advent of the Folio Prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2014 and is open to all works of fiction written in English and published in the U.K.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is supposed to be bigger than that, a recognition of greatness that knows no boundaries. But until it can see its way to a more complete inclusiveness, the Swedish Academy damages the prize’s legacy and does its winners no favors, either.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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