Alice Munro’s winning of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has sparked the kind of nationalist chest-thumping that Canadian journalists usually reserve for gold medals or war anniversaries. The flag-waving didn’t start on Thursday though; it was preceded by a week of patriotic guesswork—maybe this would be our year, with a victory for Munro or Margaret Atwood.
That the Nobel has already driven a surge in sales of, and praise for, Munro’s books is indisputably good—both for her and for her readers—but it’s unfortunate that the journalistic frenzy the week before the announcement was fueled by a deep misunderstanding of how the prize works.
Some journalists will boast that they knew this would be Munro’s year, but they will probably fail to mention that her name has been in the mix for more than 10 years—a consequence of the Nobel’s opaque nomination process (and of the British tendency to bet on everything). While a few nominees grab headlines each year—this year’s group of Peace Prize prospects included Malala Yousafzai, Edward Snowden and Vladimir Putin—there is rarely, if ever, an explanation that there are hundreds of nominees, and that the list is kept under lock and key for 50 years. (Even Christiane Amanpour admitted this week to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that she was unaware of this unusual process until this year).
Nobel victories are subject to thorough analysis after the prizes are announced, but like failed predictions before elections, missed Nobel guesses rarely make headlines after the announcements. Come next year, we will hear that 2014 is definitely the year of Haruki Murakami, Leonard Cohen or anyone from America. No journalist wants to admit that any Nobel prediction is a crapshoot, and that a bet on Dan Brown is about as informed as one on Joyce Carol Oates.