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Who needs book critics when you’ve got bookies?

October 5, 2010

Cormac McCarthy

I’m saddened that Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer has fallen out of first place in the Nobel Lit sweepstakes, passed by new frontrunner Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya and even (gasp!) an American (though the wrong American), Cormac McCarthy. Damn. No more Transformer jokes.

Who knew the Nobel Prize for Literature, which will be announced Thursday, was such a horse race? As late as last Friday, Transtromer was the favorite, followed by fellow poets Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis.

Now all those guys have fallen back into the pack, replaced by Ngugi, a novelist and playwright, as the favorite, followed by McCarthy in second place, and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in third.

Who, you may ask, is making these rankings? Some distinguished panel of literary critics, huddled in a wood-paneled back room somewhere? Or maybe a conclave of academics and scholars, signaling analysis via puffs of smoke? Or even some Google algorithm, sifting through all the reviews of all the authors ever written?

Uh, no. The answer would be: Ladbrokes, a British gambling house. Does that sound insane to you? Me, too and also to Carolyn Kellogg, of the L.A. Times, who speculates that people who actually read books by writers like Ngugi, McCarthy or Murukami are unlikely to place bets. While people who place bets are unlikely to read such books.

What Kellogg overlooks with these imminently reasonable comments is that the British apparently will wager on anything — including which Swedish town will see snowfall first (Stockholm leads with 4/5 odds, followed by Goteborg at 7/5 and Malmo at 4/1).

Ladbrokes must have a swarm of oddsmakers (imagine hunched gnomes, green eyeshades, a subterranean room) at work on the Nobel as we speak, because the odds change constantly. When the Guardian wrote about Ngugi’s ascendancy last night, his odds were 3/1. Now, however, they are at 11/4.

Meanwhile, some additional Americans have crept into the top rankings (the Nobel folks are notoriously anti-American): Joyce Carol Oates ranks 11th at 18/1, Thomas Pynchon is 12th at 22/1, Philip Roth is 13th at 20/1….Wait…?

Okay, obviously I don’t understand betting and/or oddsmaking, or else I don’t know how to read an odds sheet. Maybe someone with a track record (and I mean record at the track) can help me out: How could Roth trail Pychon? Doesn’t 20/1 rank better than 22/1? And for Pete’s sake, is 11/4 better than 3/1?

Can McCarthy actually win? Probably not, given the Swedes’ clearly stated antipathy to American literature (see Friday’s blog–yes, I’m linking to myself, even though Christine O’Donnell would not approve). But if he does, he’ll join Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck as American writers who got the prize even though they don’t deserve it.

Sure, McCarthy’s a talented novelist, but he’s also stylistically overbrearing (In All the Pretty Horses, the narrative comes to a stop for two pages at a time whenever McCarthy decides to describe the scenery).

He’s conservative to the point of imbecility (Sheriff Bell, who seems to be the author’s mouthpiece in No Country for Old Men, seems to think all this killin’ and meanness began when people stopped sayin’ “ma’am” and “sir”).

In the novels I’ve read (not all, I’ll admit), McCarthy has less feel for the female character than either Conrad or Hemingway.

And like most of the toughest hombres in late 20th century American literature (a posse that includes Jim Harrison, Robert Stone, Philip Caputo and countless others), underneath McCarthy’s hardbitten violence and general outdoorsy manliness lies a streak of romanticism that would embarrass the 12-year-old president of Team Edward.

Don’t believe me? Try reading the last chapter of All the Pretty Horses without either gagging on the fetishizing of cliched Western machismo, or falling out of your chair in a fit of helpless giggles.

Of course, the American novelist most deserving of the prize is Philip Roth, followed by Joyce Carol Oates. Neither is perfect, both have written some lousy books, but their best work is not only excellent literature, but it also strives to uncover something significant about the human condition, American style.

But wouldn’t it be just like those crafty Swedes to give the prize to the wrong American?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 8:56 pm

    McCarthy? The Noble Nobel? What for? I have to admit that I liked The Road. Maybe because I’m dark and it’s dark and in its dark way predicts a future close to what I think it might be. I mean, given the stupidity of the species in charge. Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth are hugely worthy. Love them, but truth to tell, Chauncey, I don’t think they have a chance in hell. Lordy I’d love to be wrong.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2010 10:35 pm

      Oh, Duff, I don’t think they have a chance, either. If I were a betting man — I’m not — my money’d be on Ngugi. I could not bring myself to read The Road, I hated No Country for Old Men so much. Plus what I read of it made me think McCarthy had seen The Lord of the Rings, and got his inspiration from Peter Jackson’s images of orcs marching in Mordor…But I agree the likely future for this orb, at least in the near term (geologically speaking) is Planet Wasteland.

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