October 2, 2013

Could bookies affect the outcome of the Nobel Prize for Literature?


“Highbrow gambling” is on the rise: Alex Donohue, spokesman for Ladbrokes, reports that betting on the Man Booker Prize with his company is up from £4,000 in 2005 to £15,000 so far this year, and betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature is up from just over £1,000 in 2005 to approaching £20,000.

Graham Sharpe, director of media relations for William Hill, claims to have initiated this tradition of betting on literary prizes, putting an “intellectual twist on Britain’s national pastime of betting on silly things,” according a recent article by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic.

In the Boston Globe, Chris Wright explores the role bookies like those at Ladbrokes and William Hill play in determining literary prizes. The Man Booker announces a long list and a short list, of course, but the Nobel Prize for Literature’s nominees are not revealed until the prize is awarded. That means speculation is a big part of the game.

Bookies play a role in gathering “tissue” — any research that is relevant to the event — to determine the odds. Wright characterizes this information as an “enormous influence” on where the money goes, and in fact the gossip in the months leading up to the prize can create a sort of “echo chamber” between the reading (and gambling) public, the bookies, and the academy.

What the compiler is not doing is reading the books, or in any way forming an opinion about the relative merits of each author. Instead, he applies a numerical value to things like industry chatter, an author’s nationality, historical precedent. Rather than trying to second-guess the academy, he creates a separate analytical framework—one that focuses on the could rather than the should—and this is what gives him the edge.

Once the tissue has been established, the candidates are filtered through the popular wisdom of the betting public—the odds rise and fall according to where the money goes. We should note, too, that this is the money of people who are given to placing novelty bets, and who are not held in great esteem by serious gamblers.

We’re still talking small potatoes here — Ladbrokes brought in about $32,000 last year on the Nobel Prize for Literature, compared to $28.6 billion it made overall. But the highbrow prizes can mean great PR for bookies, especially when the UK media uses the odds in its headlines, and it can generate excitement for these authors among readers.

“What we’re doing is providing a guide for lazy journalists, so they can spout opinions and take advantage of our research,” says Sharpe. “But we are widening the interest.”

The odds for Haruki Murakami winning the Nobel are three to one this year, though he was also the favorite last year. Close on Murakami’s heels are Joyce Carol Oates, Péter Nádas, and Assia Djebar. The current favorite for the Booker is Jim Crace, author of Harvest, but Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, and Colm Tóibín, author of The Testament of Mary, are not far behind.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded by eighteen members of the Swedish Academy, who spend the summer studying the five or more writers in the running for the prize. The Swedish Academy usually times the award for a week before the announcement of the Booker (October 15), so the winner could be revealed as soon as next week.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.