A High Street betting shop in London. Two old-timers, Harry and Frank, are studying the form.
FRANK: Oi, Harry. Do you like this Haruki Murakami geezer?
HARRY:[Checks the odds sheet] Absurdist allegorist ... three-to-one. Nah. I’m looking at Djebar.
FRANK: Assia Djebar? Are you having a laugh? Did you even read her last book?
‘One of our guys is well suited to literature.’
HARRY: Algeria, mate. Humanist. Feminist. A shoo-in.
FRANK: Hmm. The conflicting demands of faith, society, and self in Muslim society—that might be worth a tenner.
The above dialogue may be imaginary, but it points to a kind of truth. Every year at about this time, as the Swedish Academy prepares to reveal its choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, British bookmakers start taking significant bets on who’s going to win. There’s nothing remarkable about this in itself—the “novelty betting” industry here allows people to wager on everything from sheep-shearing contests to the fate of Julian Assange. What’s interesting is the extent to which the bookies have entered serious debate about the award, and how often they get their predictions right.
Ladbrokes, which opened its book on the prize in 2005, has a 50 percent accuracy rate—tipping correctly in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2011—about the same as its record in sports betting. This is a considerable achievement, given the challenges involved. The Swedish Academy, which receives hundreds of nominees every year, conducts its selection process amid extraordinary secrecy. It refuses to disclose candidate lists until 50 years after the fact and even keeps the dates of its announcements under wraps. And when the academy does reveal its pick for the $1.2 million prize, the thinking behind the decision remains largely inscrutable.
John Freeman, former editor of the literary journal Granta and author of the forthcoming book “How to Read a Novelist,” recalls talking to a respected Scandinavian literary critic recently. “Over the course of 20 years, he’d written a piece every year about who was going to win the prize,” Freeman says. “And in all that time, he got it right once.”
This is why many critics shy away from pre-award speculation, and why those who do make predictions tend to do so as if they were getting paid by the question mark. The odds at Ladbrokes, meanwhile, tell us decisively that Haruki Murakami is most likely to win this year, followed by Joyce Carol Oates. This sense of steely certitude is increasingly being channeled by literary pundits—who, it seems, cannot mention the award without telling us what the bookies are thinking.
“What we’re doing is providing a guide for lazy journalists, so they can spout opinions and take advantage of our research,” says Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, one of the largest bookmakers in the United Kingdom. “But,” he adds, looking for a bright side, “we are widening the interest.” That last part, at least, is beyond argument.
Bookies aren’t generally known as bastions of intellectualism. In the United Kingdom, the prevailing image has always been one of spit and sawdust, nicotine-stained fingers, and bursts of imaginative profanity. And, despite a concerted and sustained charm offensive by the industry, the old perceptions endure. “The idea most of us have of betting shops,” says Freeman, “is not a far cry from those pictures of dogs playing cards.”
Even if you accept that poker-playing dogs aren’t running the high-tech show that is today’s British gambling establishment, you have to wonder how the betting converges on the Nobel winner with such accuracy. And the mystery deepens when you look at the minimal resources involved.
Ladbrokes, which employs about 14,000 people, maintains “a couple of guys at head office who specialize in coming up with the odds at these events,” according to spokesman Alex Donohue. By “these events,” he means reality shows, royal births, the weather—anything that falls under the novelty banner. “One of our guys is well suited to literature,” Donahue continues. “He’s got a feel for these things.” Still, it seems fair to assume that this person will have neither the time nor the expertise to produce truly informed decisions—and, weirdly, this could be the secret to his success.
The way bookies generate initial forecasts—the “tissue”—is to look at any information deemed relevant to an event, and to compile odds accordingly. The tissue has an enormous influence on where the money goes, especially in something as arcane as the Nobel literary prize. Which means that these few employees, toiling away at the head office, are almost entirely responsible for determining who the early front-runners will be, and in shaping the popular debate about probable winners.
To get a sense of how the odds compilers go about doing this, we need look no further than Haruki Murakami, the bookies’ favorite this year and the year before. The thinking behind Murakami’s preferred status has an almost circular simplicity: His name keeps on cropping up in pre-award speculation; there seems a fair chance that he’ll win it over the next few years; ergo, odds are set at 3-1.
What the compiler is not doing is reading the books, or in any way forming an opinion about the relative merits of each author. Instead, he applies a numerical value to things like industry chatter, an author’s nationality, historical precedent. Rather than trying to second-guess the academy, he creates a separate analytical framework—one that focuses on the could rather than the should—and this is what gives him the edge.
Once the tissue has been established, the candidates are filtered through the popular wisdom of the betting public—the odds rise and fall according to where the money goes. We should note, too, that this is the money of people who are given to placing novelty bets, and who are not held in great esteem by serious gamblers. Again, how do they do it?
Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Business School, thinks he has the answer. Historically, he says, punters have consistently outperformed pundits in determining the outcomes of contests, literary or otherwise. “In the last US election, newspapers were divided on who was going to win,” he says, “whereas the betting market always had Obama winning comfortably.” Why? “Because there is clarity of thought when money is involved.”
There is clarity, too, in what a large group of people make of the field. In the opening lines of his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki looked at the quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the lifelines used by contestants to help them answer questions. Where expert individuals enjoyed a 65 percent accuracy rate, he found, audiences got the answer right 91 percent of the time. As Surowiecki concluded, when it comes to figuring out problems, the collective is generally smarter than the smartest individual.
But Surowiecki’s theory only goes so far. As he points out, collective intelligence works best when individual decisions aren’t influenced by the opinions of others—which is very much not the case in this instance. In the weeks preceding the announcement of the award, discussions occur in a kind of echo chamber, with the pundits listening to the bookies listening to the pundits. And the academy is presumably listening, too.
This is not to say that their deliberations are actually influenced by the murmur of the crowd; that seems highly unlikely, given the academy’s understanding of its exalted position. “You could say that with this prize we are trying to second-guess history,” says permanent secretary Peter Englund. When you’re dabbling in something of this magnitude, the buzz is probably just that—a mosquito-like irritant. “It is a bit of a nuisance,” Englund says. “But it’s no big problem for us.”
If so, it would seem the bookies are performing a kind of cultural service here: widening the discussion about literature, and for very little financial reward. Ladbrokes, for instance, has so far taken in the equivalent of about $32,000 on this year’s prize, a laughably small amount given that the company raked in a total of $28.6 billion in bets last year. The main incentive for running these books, as the bookies readily admit, is the positive PR they generate. Everybody wins.
At the same time, you could argue that in focusing on probability rather than literary merit, the betting market has lowered the tone of the prize. Is it really fair to regard Haruki Murakami’s fantastic, furious imagination in the same way we might a horse’s tendency to favor heavy ground? We are, after all, talking about the world’s greatest authors here, not the 2:15 at Chepstow.
Sharpe, who claims to have started the novelty betting trend in 1980, when he opened a book on who shot J.R., views such objections as a form of cultural arrogance. “Who’s to say if something has lowered the tone of something else?” he says. “If that’s the case, I’ve spent my career lowering the tone of everything that’s happened in our country. I might even make that my epitaph: ‘He Lowered the Tone.’”
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.