Bestseller or dark horse for 2022 Nobel Literature Prize?

Alma Cohen, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 04 2022 12:25 PM | Updated as of Oct 04 2022 12:47 PM

Nobel Physics Prize could focus on light

STOCKHOLM — The Swedish Academy will announce the 2022 winner of the often-criticized Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, with the award committee known for its penchant for spotlighting lesser-known writers over bestselling authors.

In the past two years, the 18-member Academy has bestowed the prestigious prize on US poet Louise Gluck and Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, two writers whose work had not been widely translated and was not known to the broad public -- or even some publishers.

"After last year, I think it's maybe even a bit harder to guess" who could win this year, admitted Lina Kalmteg, literary critic for public broadcaster Swedish Radio, recalling the "total surprise" in the studio when Gurnah's name was read out last year.

"I think we can expect a more well-known name this year, after last year's surprise," said Bjorn Wiman, culture editor at Sweden's newspaper of reference Dagens Nyheter.

The Academy is slowly recovering from a devastating #MeToo scandal that led to the postponement of the 2018 prize, and its controversial decision a year later to honor Austrian author Peter Handke.

His pro-Serbian positions extended to backing Serbia's former president Slobodan Milosevic, who was on trial for genocide when he died in 2006.

Three years ago, the body promised new criteria would lead to a more global and gender-equal literature prize.

"The Academy is now very conscious of its reputation when it comes to diversity and gender representation, in a totally different way than they were before the 2017-2018 scandal," Wiman told AFP.

"A lot of new people have joined the Academy with new perspectives and other references," he said, noting that it was no longer just made up of "older white men."

Since the #MeToo scandal, the Academy has awarded the Nobel to two women -- Louise Gluck and Olga Tokarczuk of Poland -- and one man.

Does that bode well for another woman this year?

If so, Joyce Carol Oates of the United States, Annie Ernaux and Maryse Conde of France and Canada's Margaret Atwood could get the nod this year.

A prize to Russian author and outspoken Kremlin critic Lyudmila Ulitskaya, often cited as a potential candidate, would also send a strong message after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

 BETS ARE ON HOUELLEBECQ

A prize to Ulitskaya "would spark reactions," Wiman said, noting it would highlight her opposition to the Kremlin but also be considered controversial for promoting Russian culture at a time when Moscow is being lambasted for its war in Ukraine. 

"This is the kind of complex intellectual debate you really want to see around the Nobel," Wiman said.

Unlike many other literary awards, there is no shortlist for the Nobel, and the nominations to the Academy and its deliberations are kept secret for 50 years.

Left to mere speculation, betting sites list the favorite as France's Michel Houellebecq, whose name has made the rounds in Nobel circles for many years.

In the second spot is British author Salman Rushdie, who was the victim of an attempted murder attack in August. 

It took the Academy 27 years to finally denounce, in 2016, the Iranian fatwa on "The Satanic Verses" author, a highly controversial silence it attributed to its neutrality and independence.

Other names often cited as possible winners are Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Hungary's Laszlo Krasznahorkai and US authors Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

"The great American postmodern novels haven't been honored yet," Jonas Thente, literary critic at Dagens Nyheter, noted. 

Yet other favorites include Jon Fosse and Karl Ove Knausgaard of Norway, who could bring the prize back to Scandinavia more than a decade after it went to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.

Maria Hymna Ramnehill, a critic at regional daily Goteborgs-Posten, meanwhile said she was hoping the prize would go to French-Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun or Croatia's Dubravka Ugresic.

"In different ways, both have a body of work that explores identity in relation to nationalism and to gender," she said.

"They talk about their identity in a complex manner that highlights the complicated and hard-to-grasp reality we live in and which can't be explained with simple solutions."

NOBEL PHYSICS PRIZE

Meanwhile, bending and manipulating light to make objects invisible or harnessing it more efficiently to produce electricity are among the discoveries tipped to win the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is due to announce the winner at 11:45 am (0945 GMT).

Last year, the academy honored Syukuro Manabe, of Japan and the United States, and German Klaus Hasselmann for their research on climate models, while Italian Giorgio Parisi also won for his work on the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems.

David Pendlebury, head of Clarivate -- an organization that keeps a close eye on potential laureates in the sciences -- said the committee is likely to stay terrestrial this year.

"There have been so many astrophysics, cosmology prizes, just in the last few years. So I don't think that's on the table this year," he told AFP.

He said a likely pick could be Britain's John B. Pendry, who has become famous for his "invisibility cloak," where he uses materials to bend light to make objects invisible.

Other potential winners are Sajeev John and American Eli Yablonovitch, who in 1987 discovered photonic crystals that can control and manipulate the flow of light.

PHOTOVOLTAICS?

Ulrika Bjorksten, a science commentator for Swedish public radio, said the academy could also focus on photovoltaics: the conversion of light to electricity.

Bjorksten said work on perovskite -- a material discovered by the Russian mineralogist Lev Perovski in the 19th century -- might get recognized.

This could steer the academy towards Britain's Henry Snaith, a physics professor at the University of Oxford, who is developing new materials and structures for hybrid solar cells.

The relatively recent discovery that metal halide perovskites can operate extremely efficiently in thin film solar cells makes him a contender, Bjorksten said.

"He was the origin for why there was so much attention given to perovskite," Bjorksten told AFP.

South Korea's Nam-Gyu Park could also be a candidate for his research into improving the stability of photovoltaic cells.

Specialists in photovoltaics on the other hand could potentially be overlooked since the field is so vast, according to Bjorksten.

"It's really difficult... because there are so many involved," Bjorksten said.

Linus Brohult, editor of the science desk at Swedish public broadcaster SVT, said the microphysics expert Stephen Quake, could be considered for work on microscopic fluid dynamics.

WOMEN ABSENT

Only four women -- Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963), Donna Strickland (2018) and Andrea Ghez (2020) -- have won the Nobel Physics Prize since the award was instituted in 1901.

"It reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past but still existing," Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, told AFP last year.

Quotas however have been ruled out.

"We want every laureate (to) be accepted... because they made the most important discovery, and not because of gender or ethnicity," Hansson said.

Last year, 12 men and one woman won Nobel Prizes, with all of the science nods going to men.

The physics prize is followed by chemistry on Wednesday, with the highly watched literature and peace prizes announced on Thursday and Friday respectively.

The peace prize is expected to hold a special significance this year given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court, tasked with investigating war crimes in Ukraine, has been mentioned as a possible laureate this year, along with jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

© Agence France-Presse

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