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Preview: Nobel Prize for literature is announced on Thursday

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In just a few hours, a new name will join the pantheon of Nobel winners in literature. Now, past laureates have included the authors Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. NPR's Neda Ulaby joins us now as we wait for updates from Sweden. So, Neda, are we - what? - expecting maybe a big win for James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks this year? What do you think?

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: (Laughter) I don't think so, not unless they have side gigs I don't know about as - I don't know - maybe avant-garde...

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

ULABY: ...French poets or crusading journalists in Belarus. Seriously, though, A, over the past 20 years, the literature Nobel has tended to go to a certain kind of writer who's pretty obscure outside of academic circles. They're often North American or European, white, extremely distinguished, but not exactly rock stars, except at universities or in their home countries. So just for examples - recent literature winners include the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian experimental playwright Peter Handke.

MARTINEZ: Well, you said rock star. So, I mean, let's not forget about a real rock star - Bob Dylan. He won a Nobel Prize in literature five years ago.

ULABY: Right. And that did feel a little bit like an overcorrection on the part of the...

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

ULABY: ...Nobel Prize committee, like, maybe they were trying really obviously to appeal to a broader audience, except in some ways because, you know, there were similar generational issues and aesthetic sensibilities going on. And I should add that Bob Dylan was one of two Americans who very recently got the literature Nobel. The last one, just last year - the wonderful poet Louise Gluck.

MARTINEZ: OK. Now, you said that certain geographical areas tend to be overrepresented with the literature Nobel. How much is this really an issue?

ULABY: Let me put it this way, A - more Austrians have won the literature Nobel in the past 20 years than anyone from the entire continent of Africa...

MARTINEZ: Wow.

ULABY: ...Or from the Arab world or from Central America.

MARTINEZ: Wow.

ULABY: No Black person has won a literature Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993. And no one from any East Asian country, except for China or Japan, has ever won. And this is an award intended to be the most prestigious in world literature.

MARTINEZ: And that definitely sounds like overrepresentation - those numbers that you just threw out there. So has this always been the case?

ULABY: You know, actually not. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Nobel Prize for literature went to leading writers from Colombia - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - and from Mexico, Egypt - Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia. It really wasn't as Eurocentric as it's been feeling for the past 20 years.

MARTINEZ: So especially with the cultural reassessments and reckonings that we've been seeing happen all over the world, do you have a sense maybe that there will be changes?

ULABY: Maybe. The Nobel Committee for Literature recently tried to diversify by adding two women in their 50s, and this was after a sexual abuse scandal in 2017. And what that means is that the judges are now six Swedish writers whose combined age is more than 400 years. So they seem to have realized that the prize's relevance has dwindled in the popular imagination, and the chairman has promised to start drawing on experts next year that will help the committee consider literature beyond Europe and North America. Ideally, this is supposed to help make the Nobel Prizes more about global human achievements, even in countries that are not rich in any resources beyond the imagination.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. All right, so who are some of the literature front-runners this year?

ULABY: Well, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o comes up every year as a strong possibility. He is what we call a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. Other names that come up a lot are the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, the Syrian poet Adonis and the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. There's a French writer named Annie Ernaux who's getting a lot of buzz, even though if she won, it would make her the third writer from France since 2008 to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Neda Ulaby, who covers arts and culture. Thanks a lot.

ULABY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF AS THE POETS AFFIRM'S "I AM PLEASANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.