October 5, 2010

All the pretty horses…


Gambling addicts and literature lovers both took note when Carolyn Kellogg reported in the Los Angeles Times that Cormac McCarthy jumped into the second-favorite spot for the Nobel Prize, which is being announced on 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.

An American winning the prize seemed doubtful back in 2008 when Horace Engdahl, the spokesman of the Nobel prize board, infamously declared:

Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States… The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.

If the Nobel has come to be associated with a kind of elite European intellectualism and post-colonial liberalism, the Man Booker has the jolly populism of a book club. As prize-panel chair Andrew Motion writes in the Guardian:

We have met for supper at regular intervals since last Christmas, discarding or preserving titles as we went… The general reaction to our choices has been pretty enthusiastic; in fact Booker-watchers have assured us that our longlist has sold better than any for several years. Although we didn’t set out to be “popular”, we were pleased to be told this. Isn’t one of the purposes of the prize to get people reading what they otherwise might not?

Who wins literary prizes and what it actually means in terms of literary value has always been an inexact science. Since one never knows exactly what criteria the judges value in books (I suspect they don’t fully know themselves) readers are essentially presented with inscrutable recommendations from well-read strangers–a recommendation that has vast cultural and financial ramifications. The ultimate example of this must be the MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowships. When the anonymous panel chose Yiyun Li as the only novelist to receive the $500,000 award they certainly changed her life and reputation permanently–we’ll just never know exactly what they were thinking.

But who cares about aesthetics, criteria, or value when you’ve got a good horse race? As of this writing, McCarthy has increased his odds to 6-1. And Tom McCarthy‘s C is out in front to win the Man Booker at 2-1. Could we have a double McCarthy finish? What are the odds?!