Placing Bets On The Nobel Prize For Literature

by Colleen White

“I read the 300 novels and no other bastard did.”
– A. L. Kennedy, Man Booker Prize Judge

Dr. Francis Crick's Nobel Prize Medal on Heritage Auctions

The Nobel Prize is shrouded in mystery. Unlike its British cousin, the Man Booker Prize, the Nobel releases no long or short list. It is notoriously zeitgeist-y (at least in recent years), tends to stay away from commercial successes, and favors non-English speaking (and often non-English translated) authors. And with the deliberations kept under wraps for 50 years, it can be impossible to even get a sense of what factors came into consideration when choosing past winners.

But that hasn’t kept people from trying to play the odds.

Since the 1980’s when novelty bets on things like royal baby names and Elvis sightings became popular in British culture, betting on prestige literature awards has skyrocketed. In 2015, over £50,000 in bets were placed on literature prizes. While these bets are primarily seen as publicity stunts for the betting houses (after all, the average EPL match brings in around £350,000), they boast a relatively high success rate, given the sheer range of potential winners.

So how do the odds makers go about setting the line on these kooky, subjective prizes?

For one, most try not to read the works of the novelists whose names are in the running. Instead, many of the betting houses focus on forming their own models for prediction. Some try to work out frameworks such as literature type, country of origin, author’s age, and the political relevance of recent works to figure out whose star is rising and who to avoid.

14619865_10207916566093609_1108671346_nOthers prefer to only consider the critical reception, particularly when the prize includes a short list. Using this strategy, Ladbrokes has been able to accurately predict the winner of the Man Booker Prize three of the last nine years.

In the end though, the line for most literature prizes is set by the betters themselves. That’s how popular authors like Murakami become perennial frontrunners (he’s been in the top five since 2011), and pop icons like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen can end up on the list a year or so after finishing a memoir. While these popular authors have very little chance of winning the Nobel, they are names that people are familiar with, and so their odds become over-inflated.

Of course, the public perception model isn’t completely flawed. In 2015, relatively obscure Belarusian-Ukrainian author Svetlana Alexievich won the prize after suddenly skyrocketing to the top of the betting table in the last few weeks. The reason? Some suspect the shortlist was leaked, allowing a few oversized, confident bets to tip the tables in her favor.

As of today, the top of the betting table includes Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (4/1), Japanese surrealist author Murakami (5/1), and the political favorite, Syrian poet Adonis (6/1). Those who believe that last year’s list was leaked, however, will be interested to see then that Don DeLillo, an American novelist, has jumped this week from 66/1 to 14/1.

Whatever you decide, place your bets quickly – the winner is expected to be announced at 1 PM CET Thursday, Oct. 13

Related Article: Great Quotes From 100 Years of Nobel Prize For Literature Winners


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