Early one morning in mid-October, while most of his classmates were sleeping off hangovers or late night study sessions, Zack Woolfe sat in front of his computer, eagerly pressing his internet browser’s “Refresh” button. The Princeton University senior was up at the ungodly hour of seven AM (one PM in Europe) to check the results of his favorite competition of the year: the Nobel Prize in Literature.
When Woolfe and his roommate discovered that British playwright Harold Pinter had won the coveted prize, they broke out into a victory dance.
“We had both heard of him, and we both liked him, so we were really excited,” Woolfe explained, waving his hands to convey just how excited they were.
The Nobel Prize is not the only award whose results Woolfe anticipates with such interest. When he was growing up, he ran his family’s Academy Award betting pool, which involved an elaborate system for weighing the different categories.
“I mean, you couldn’t just win for guessing correctly on Best Sound,” he explained.
His passion for literary awards began with the Pulitzer, Columbia’s annual prize for the best books written in the United States. Tracking the Pulitzer led to following the Man Booker Prize, England’s equivalent of the Pulitzer.
“I’m not an athlete,” said Woolfe. “Guessing who’s going to win these various prizes is the only way I can display my competitive spirit.”
When Woolfe arrived at Princeton as a freshman, however, he realized that the Pulitzer, Booker, and even the Oscars were all child’s play in comparison with the Nobel Prize.
Predicting the winner of the Nobel Prize is a notoriously difficult task. To begin with, speculators do not know who their options are; the Swedish Academy, which administers the Nobel, is one of the only prize committees in the world that does not release a list of nominees. Thus, spectators have to guess the nominees before they can even start to ponder who might win.
Furthermore, while the Oscars, Pulitzer, and Booker, all award work from a given year, the Nobel recognizes an author’s entire body of work.
“It’s both an achievement award and not,” Woolfe explained. “You should have completed your masterpiece recently, but you also have to have a long body of work from the past.”
The Nobel also does not confine itself to one particular country or language, so any author from anywhere in the world is eligible—this explains Woolfe’s ecstasy at both knowing who Harold Pinter was and liking his work.
According to Woolfe, the author’s political activities are also a factor in the Academy’s decision. Historically, the Academy has favored left-leaning writers.
“The trouble with the Nobel Prize these days is that it’s hard to figure out whether it’s been given for what the winner wrote or for where the winner stands,” James Atlas wrote in a 1999 New York Times Editorial criticizing Gunther Grasse’s win.
Several websites try to predict the winner, mostly without success. This year, British betting site Readabet.com gave Syrian poet Adonis best odds. The blog Marginal Revolution named John Updike, Philip Roth, and Margaret Atwood as most likely to win. On most sites, Pinter did not even receive a mention as a possible winner. Woolfe had predicted Philip Roth as the winner, though he was rooting for Joan Didion.
Because of all the factors that go into guessing a Nobel winner, Woolfe says that it is sometimes an advantage not to have read works by the main contenders. Staying detached from the authors makes it easier to figure out how they fit into the Academy’s social and political agenda.
There is one author, however, from whom Woolfe cannot detach himself: Joyce Carol Oates, a Princeton professor who has been on most speculators’ nominee list for years. Woolfe calls her “a completely undeserving” writer and has vowed to commit suicide if she ever does win.
Fortunately, last year’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer whose novels address many of the same issues as Oates’, has filled the women’s writer quota for the moment. Pinter satisfies the English-speaking writers requirement.
Asked his prediction for next year’s winner, Woolfe answered, with a gleam in his eye, “Who knows? It doesn’t look good for Joyce.”