Bob Dylan, betting rushes and the Nobel Prize in Literature… We’ve been here before…

So we say goodbye to science for a while on this blog and turn to the Nobel Prize in Literature, due to be announced at the stroke of 13:00 (CET) today. Normally, I would have a look at the pre-announcement coverage, but The Literary Saloon has done such a good job of this, I suggest you go there.

In the meantime, let’s talk about betting rushes. The big news about today’s Literature Prize announcement, of course, is the surprise rush on betting that has brought Bob Dylan from 100/1 rank outsider to favourite in bookmakers Ladbroke’s list. (UPDATE: Bob Dylan has now slipped to second favourite at 5/1 on Ladbroke’s list. The current favourite at 4/1 is the Swedish writer and poet Tomas Tranströmer.)

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes is quoted as saying: “We have seen a lot of bets from Sweden, from people we believe to be quite well-informed.”

How likely is this to have happened? Well, cynics say this is a PR move, but believe it or not something similar happened a few years ago. Ladbrokes closed the betting on the Literature Prize in 2008 after an unusual rush of bets on the French author JMG Le Clézio before his name was announced as the Literature Laureate that year.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, was concerned that  Le Clézio’s
 identity had leaked out before the official announcement.

But how could this have happened? Well, it was revealed that the Swedish Academy had quirky codenames for their candidates on the shortlist, which they use in e-mails, or when they meet in public spaces. (According to this Associated Press article, Academy members have also been known to use fake covers to camouflage their books whenever reading in public.)

For instance, 2007 Literature Laureate Doris Lessing was “Little Dorrit”, the young character in Dickens’s novel, and 2005 Laureate Harold Pinter was “Harry Potter”. Le Clézio’s codename was “Chateaubriand”, the grand French dish of fillet steak cut from the tenderloin.

So it’s not difficult to assume that someone overheard the codename in 2008, perhaps in Den Gyldene Freden – the restaurant where the Swedish Academy officially dine – and put two and two together. The surprise was that such a simple code had not been cracked earlier.

Could this have happened this year? Well, Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, used to work in military intelligence, and has previously said that they have taken a number of measures to see that the situation with Le Clézio isn’t repeated. However, let’s see if this year’s betting rush coincides with a similar outcome.


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