Although the number of female laureates has risen sharply in the past 10 years, only 12 women have won the coveted award since its inception in 1901. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, has acknowledged that it's an "embarrassingly small" number. If the academy picks a woman this year, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich or Canada's Margaret Atwood could be hot contenders, according to literature critics. Egyptian author Nawal el Saadawi, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro and Algeria's Assia Djebar are other perennial favorites.
German writer Herta Mueller was the last woman to win the Nobel literature award, in 2009. Prominent female authors that the Swedish Academy never awarded include Virginia Woolf and Karen Blixen.
The last American to win a Nobel Prize in literature was Toni Morrison in 1993. The previous permanent secretary of the academy, Horace Engdahl, sparked outrage in U.S. literary circles in 2008 when he told The Associated Press that American writers were too "insular" and "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture." Engdahl's successor, Englund, has not been so dismissive - conceding that it is a problem that academy members are biased toward European literature. The academy has a tendency to pick authors who aren't widely known, which works against many popular U.S. writers. But if the academy were to look across the Atlantic, potential U.S. winners could include Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates.
In recent years the academy has stepped up efforts to prevent leaks before the announcement. Nevertheless, every other year or so the winner is among those getting the most attention by those who bet money on the prize. When French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won in 2008, his odds had plunged in the final hours before the announcement, triggering suspicions of a leak. Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and China's Mo Yan, the winners in 2011 and 2012, were also among the top candidates on betting sites. On Wednesday, Japanese author Haruki Murakami was the favorite to win at betting firm Ladbrokes, followed by Munro, Alexievich and Oates. Other writers whose odds have dropped significantly in the past days are Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse and Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o.