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Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known by the pen name Adonis, would be a controversial choice for the Nobel Literature Prize. His most recent work is a polemic on political Islam. Phptp: AFP

Nobel Literature Prize selectors keep award-watchers waiting, with delay hinting at controversial contenders

Nobel Prize

Literary circles are abuzz with speculation ahead of Thursday’s Nobel Literature Prize announcement, with award watchers suggesting this year’s honours could go to a controversial writer such as Syrian-born poet Adonis.

The Academy is known for its cloak-and-dagger methods to prevent any leaks about its choice, resorting to codenames for authors and fake book covers when reading in public.

The list of nominees is never revealed and the jury’s deliberations are kept secret for half a century.

The suspense will come to an end on Thursday at 1pm (7pm Hong Kong time) when the winner is announced, ending an unusually long wait: it comes a week later than usual “for calendar reasons”, the Academy said in late September.

“That leaves a little more time to speculate” about the 2016 laureate, joked Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg.
Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known by the pen name Adonis, is pictured during an interview at the 2016 Book Fair in Gothenburg, Sweden on September 23. Photo: AFP

While perfectly in line with Academy statutes according to Wastberg, some Nobel watchers have interpreted the late date as a sign of discord over this year’s choice.

“If you ask me, it’s absolutely not a ‘calendar’ issue,” said Bjorn Wiman, cultural pages editor at Sweden’s main daily Dagens Nyheter.

“This is a sign there’s a disagreement in the process to select a winner.”

Mattias Berg, cultural reporter at Swedish Radio, suggested the Academy’s 18 members may have argued over a “politically controversial laureate, such as Adonis,” whose most recent publication is a polemic tract on political Islam.

“The prize would in such cases be seen as taking a stance,” Wiman said.

If the Academy is indeed looking for a laureate who divides opinion, it may also have set its sights on Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie.

In March, the Academy denounced the Iranian fatwa on the author of The Satanic Verses, after a 27-year silence it attributed to its neutrality and independence.
It was only in March that the Swedish Academy denounced Iran’s 27-year-old fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie. Photo: AFP

Literary critic Madelaine Levy at daily Svenska Dagbladet said only one thing was certain: we know that we know nothing about the Academy’s choice.

“Year after year, the writers chosen are incredibly different,” she noted.

Some of the same names have been making the rounds for several years, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, Don DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates of the US and Haruki Murakami of Japan.

Wiman meanwhile has his Nobel trifecta for this year: “I think it will be (Norwegian playwright Jon) Fosse, I’m hoping for (Israeli writer David) Grossman and I would jump for joy for (the novelist using the psudonymn Elena) Ferrante.”

Amid all the speculation, the Academy is remaining tight-lipped.

“Some people want to know what’s in the Christmas parcel and some people want to be surprised. We want to surprise you,” says Swedish Academy director Odd Zschiedrich.

Every year, the venerable tradition remains the same: in February, the Academy makes a list of all of the nominations submitted, before reducing it to a secret short list of five names in May.

Throughout the summer, Academy members study their works, before reaching a decision in October.

Last year, the Academy surprised everyone “by not surprising us”, Wiman said.

Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won for her documentary-style narratives based on witness testimonies, was the favourite in both literary circles and on betting sites.

This year, most observers say they are expecting a return to fiction.

But Murakami, the big favourite among bettors and the public, is not considered a serious contender.

Too superficial, is the unanimous verdict among the Stockholm literati.

“There’s room for a category of authors who haven’t yet won,” as was the case with the short story genre and Alice Munro, and Alexievich and her documentary style, according to Swedish Radio’s Berg.

Despite that, and even though novelists are those most frequently honoured with a Nobel, he said he would love to see Joyce Carol Oates win.

And, note many, more women ought to win the award: since 1901, only 14 women have won, compared to 98 men.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Speculation mounts over Nobel Prize for literature