The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to French author Patrick Modiano for "the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."
Modiano, 69, is the author of more than two dozen books and several screenplays. The 11th Literature laureate born in France, Modiano is also the recipient of the Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.
Prior to the announcement, speculation as to the next Nobel laureate in literature was rampant. Bettors at U.K. bookmakers Ladbrokes favored Kenyan poet Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who had surged to the front of the pack in recent days. Murakami had frequently been fingered as a possible Nobel laureate in previous years, including in 2013, when he led the odds, only to lose out to Alice Munro.
Other favorites familiar to U.S. readers included Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Pynchon -- novelists celebrated by the American literary establishment but thus far without Nobel Prizes -- as well as singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
Oddsmakers also favored writers less familiar to the general U.S. audience, including Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, Austrian novelist Peter Handke, and Syrian poet Adonis.
Though betting was hot and heavy at Ladbrokes, there’s little data behind Nobel odds. There’s no Nobel longlist or shortlist announced. Even the nominees are kept secret by the Nobel organization.
So, how does the Nobel Prize in Literature get awarded? The Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy, academics and thinkers who have been appointed to lifetime memberships. The Academy elects, from within its own members, The Nobel Committee for Literature, which invites distinguished academy members, previous laureates and other qualified nominators from around the world to nominate authors for the prize. From the nominations they receive, the committee selects a short list of candidates. The final choice is made by the full 18 members of the Swedish Academy, who review the life's work of the nominees chosen by the Nobel Committee for Literature.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been the subject of considerable controversy over the years. The prize has been criticized for skipping over seminal authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Leo Tolstoy, while being bestowed upon other authors who have since languished in apparent obscurity.
Some, such as Philip Roth, have suggested that the Academy relies too heavily on non-literary criteria, such as the perceived social justice value of the author’s work. In 2011, Per Wästberg, the chairman of the committee for literature, responded to this charge: “We do not have a human rights criterion," he insisted. "We award, for example, Orhan Pamuk for his outstanding novels and essays; then the award becomes politically interpreted.”
The sheer scope of the Nobel Prize presents an obvious challenge; with literature from across the globe open for consideration, it would be difficult for the Academy to recognize each highly acclaimed author from each literary tradition around the world. This breadth of consideration, as well as the relative opacity of the process, keeps critics and oddsmakers guessing each year as to what direction the Academy might take.