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Nobel literature prize: Honoring the elusive 'ideal'

Posted October 2

— When Alfred Nobel established the literature prize in his name, he perhaps could have benefited from an editor. The terms of his will leave the prize's exact intentions tantalizingly vague — making the literature award one of the most debated and entertaining of the Nobel Prizes.

The Swedish industrialist said he wanted the prize to recognize "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."

On Thursday, the Swedish Academy will announce whom it considers to have met the criterion of "ideal" for the 2017 laurels.

A look at some aspects of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

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WHAT IS 'IDEAL DIRECTION'?

The Swedish Academy hasn't ever had a consistent view of this, but appears to cycle through concepts.

In an article on the Nobel Prize website, academy member Kjell Espmark traced at least seven distinct periods in the 20th century interpretations, ranging from the early years' "conservative idealism" honoring church and family, through an Everyman period in the 1930s when Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck won, and more recently, a determination to award the prize to writers outside Western traditions.

Just five countries have accounted for nearly half the literature prizes since 1901: France, the United States, Britain, Germany and Sweden.

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WHAT COUNTS AS LITERATURE?

In 2015 and 2016, the award went to writers outside the conventional conception of "literature" as novels and poetry. Svetlana Alexievich's books are artistic sociopolitical reportage, and Bob Dylan's lyrics arguably have more power as song than on the page.

If the academy is determined to be adventurous, it could find other forms of art to consider as literature.

Graphic novels, for example, arguably have built up the moral weight and imaginative power to be considered literature that goes beyond entertainment.

A Nobel prize for graphic novels "doesn't seem unreasonable at all," Gabriel Winslow-Yost, an editor at the New York Review of Books, told The Associated Press.

Like Alexievich, "some of the best of the past couple of generations of American cartoonists have been especially concerned with the effects of large-scale political forces on particular individual lives; that's true of Art Spielgelman, true of (Chris) Ware, true of Dan Clowes," he said.

And if Dylan's song lyrics count as literature, is there a case to be made for opera librettos?

Stephen Wadsworth, director of opera studies at the Juilliard School and author of one libretto, said he could envision the prize going to an author whose work had been adapted for opera, noting laureate Maurice Maeterlinck's play, "Pelléas and Mélisande," was the basis for Debussy's famous opera.

Aside from that "there are probably a few librettists who would tell you that they should get Nobel prizes. But they would be wrong," he said.

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THE PRESUMED FAVORITES

Kenyan novelist, playwright and essayist Ngugi wa Thiong'o leads the speculation at many bookmakers, with perennial favorite Haruki Murakami behind by a nose.

Another name that surfaces year after year may find her chances marred by popularity. "We've had to cut Margaret Atwood's odds ... following 'The Handmaid's Tale"s Emmy win last week," Alex Apati, a spokesman for Britain's Ladbroke's betting house, said in an email.

In any case, setting Nobel odds appears to be less rigorous than assessing sports teams' prospects, relying on the wisdom of the crowd rather than deep reading.

"While we don't employ someone specifically to work on pricing up this market, between them the traders keep a close eye on things," Apati said.

Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, Adonis and Don de Lillo also are regarded as strong contenders, according to the odds.

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OUTLIERS: TRUMP?

Bookmakers are offering potentially lucrative bets upwards of 1000-to-1 on Kanye West and President Donald Trump. One might make a credible argument for West — metrical complexity and inventive rhymes constitute a kind of poetry.

But Trump's prose rarely rises above the entertainingly pedestrian — and it's unclear whether the books are his work or the production of ghostwriters.

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