With just a few days until the Swedish Academy announces the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the betting odds determined by gambling site Ladbrokes.com have experienced quite the shakeup. Cormac McCarthy has seen his chances to snag the prize shoot up from 66 to 1 all the way to 8 to 1, placing him among this year’s most heavily favored writers.
This new pressure on McCarthy is high: no American author has captured the highest accolade in the world of letters since Toni Morrison in 1993. Could McCarthy — who has published both ultraviolent grit-voiced deconstructions of the ur-Western identity, and Oprah-approved Father-son dystopian odyssey tales — be the one to return the crown to the Americans?
The run-up to the announcement of the Nobel prize in literature, which will take place Thursday, is not commonly treated as a spectator sport. For some, however, emotions run high enough over the literary honor that a spot on the Ladbrokes site is necessitated, even obsessed over. An article in today’s Los Angeles Times recognizes this ferver, and includes quotes from certain high-status practitioners of these award ceremonies that decry the hubbub as beside the point.
Yet while that’s understandable, it is, in its way, another kind of smokescreen, distracting us from the conversation about literature in favor of a more competitive frame.
“There’s a big difference between art and sports,” notes Harold Augenbraum, who, as executive director of the National Book Foundation, oversees the National Book Awards. “In sports, teams go head-to-head against each other, and we see who wins. It’s quantifiable. You can’t do that with something as human as art.”
For some people on this side of the pond, though, the extra ferver may be rooted in a feeling of inferiority — or, more optimistically, the hope that Americans can beat the Europeans at what they’ve claimed as their own game. In 2008, Horance Engdahl, the former Permanent Secretary of the Nobel prize jury, openly acknowledged a Eurocentric bias on the part of the judges, and pooh-poohed the entire American canon in the process.
“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” Engdahl told the AP in 2008. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.”
So, the hope for the first American Nobel in nearly 20 years now rests on McCarthy’s new 8 to 1 odds. It can’t hurt that he’s an easy writer for the average U.S. reader to root for — The Road was a national bestseller, No Country for Old Men was adapted into a Best Picture winner, and Blood Meridian may be the greatest American novel of the past 50 years (Harold Bloom told The A/V Club that it’s “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.“)
What might hurt his chances, though, is the fact that McCarthy’s books don’t just provide evidence of a particular American brilliance, he makes this American brilliance the primary subtext of his books — the prose is consciously nodding to Whitman and Melville, the setting is most often the Texas-Mexico border, et cetera. It just seems like a unlikely that the iced-over U.S.-scorning Scandinavians would permit the last cowboy of American letters to walk away with their cherished prize.
Still, even if the 8 to 1 chances could be misleading — these types of oddsmakers can be totally off-base, of course — there’s no reason not to hold out hope come this Thursday.