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Nobel Prize in Literature

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The Nobel Prize in Literature
Nobel2008Literature news conference1.jpg
Announcement of the Nobel Prize laureate in literature
Awarded for Outstanding contributions in literature
Country Sweden
Presented by Swedish Academy
First awarded 1901
Official website

Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature ( Swedish: Nobelpriset i litteratur) has been awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" (original Swedish: den som inom litteraturen har producerat det mest framstående verket i en idealisk riktning). Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, here "work" refers to an author's work as a whole. The Swedish Academy decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize in any given year. The academy announces the name of the chosen laureate in early October. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895; the others are the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Physics, Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Nobel's choice of emphasis on "idealistic" or "ideal" (English translation) in his criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature has led to recurrent controversy. In the original Swedish, the word idealisk translates as either "idealistic" or "ideal". In the early twentieth century, the Nobel Committee interpreted the intent of the will strictly. For this reason, they did not award certain world-renowned authors of the time such as James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James. More recently, the wording has been more liberally interpreted. Thus, the prize is now awarded both for lasting literary merit and for evidence of consistent idealism on some significant level. In recent years, this means a kind of idealism championing human rights on a broad scale. Hence the award is now arguably more political.

The Swedish Academy has attracted significant criticism in recent years for its handling of the award. Some critics contend that many well-known writers have not been awarded the prize or even been nominated, whereas others contend that some well-known recipients do not deserve it. There have also been controversies involving alleged political interests relating to the nomination process and ultimate selection of some of the recent literary laureates. Some, such as Sabaree Mitra—professor at the Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies—have noted that, though the Nobel Prize in Literature is significant and tends to overshadow other awards, it is "not the only benchmark of literary excellence".


In 1901, Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907), a French poet and essayist, was the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, "in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect."

Alfred Nobel stipulated in his last will and testament that his money be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. Though Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime, the last was written a little over a year before he died, and signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895. Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million Swedish kronor (US$186 million, 135 million in 2008), to establish and endow the five Nobel Prizes. Due to the level of scepticism surrounding the will it was not until April 26, 1897 that the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) approved it. The executors of his will were Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, who formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of Nobel's fortune and organize the prizes.

The members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that were to award the Peace Prize were appointed shortly after the will was approved. The prize-awarding organisations followed: the Karolinska Institutet on June 7, the Swedish Academy on June 9, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on June 11. The Nobel Foundation then reached an agreement on guidelines for how the Nobel Prize should be awarded. In 1900, the Nobel Foundation's newly created statutes were promulgated by King Oscar II. According to Nobel's will, the Royal Swedish Academy were to award the Prize in Literature.

Nomination procedure

Each year the Swedish Academy sends out requests for nominations of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Members of the Academy, members of literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers' organizations are all allowed to nominate a candidate. However, it is not permitted to nominate oneself.

Thousands of requests are sent out each year, and as of 2011 about 220 proposals are returned. These proposals must be received by the Academy by 1 February, after which they are examined by the Nobel Committee. By April, the Academy narrows the field to around twenty candidates. By May a short list of five names is approved by the Committee. The subsequent four months are then spent in reading and reviewing the works of the five candidates. In October members of the Academy vote and the candidate who receives more than half of the votes is named the Nobel Laureate in Literature. No one can get the prize without being on the list at least twice, thus many of the same authors reappear and are reviewed repeatedly over the years. The academy is master of thirteen languages, but when a candidate is shortlisted from an unknown language, they call on translators and oath-sworn experts to provide samples of that writer. Other elements of the process is similar to that of other Nobel Prizes.


A Literature Nobel Prize laureate earns a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money. The amount of money awarded depends on the income of the Nobel Foundation that year. If a prize is awarded to more than one laureate, the money is either split evenly among them or, for three laureates, it may be divided into a half and two quarters. If a prize is awarded jointly to two or more laureates the money is split among them.

The prize money of the Nobel Prize has been fluctuating since its inauguration but as of 2012 it stands at kr 8,000,000 (about US$1,100,000), previously it was kr 10,000,000. This was not the first time the prize-amount was decreased—beginning with a nominal value of kr 150,782 in 1901 (worth 8,123,951 in 2011 SEK) the nominal value has been as low as kr 121,333 (2,370,660 in 2011 SEK) in 1945—but it's been uphill or stable since then, peaking at an SEK-2011 value of 11,659,016 in 2001.

The laureate also receives a gold medal and a Nobel diploma and is invited to give a lecture during "Nobel Week" in Stockholm; the highlight is the prize-giving ceremony and banquet on December 10. It is the richest literary prize in the world by a large margin.

Nobel Prize Medals

The Nobel Prize medals, minted by Myntverket in Sweden and the Mint of Norway since 1902, are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation. Each medal features an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the obverse (front side of the medal). The Nobel Prize medals for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature have identical obverses, showing the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death (1833–1896). Nobel's portrait also appears on the obverse of the Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Medal for the Prize in Economics, but with a slightly different design. The image on the reverse of a medal varies according to the institution awarding the prize. The reverse sides of the Nobel Prize medals for Chemistry and Physics share the same design.

Nobel Prize Diplomas

Nobel laureates receive a Diploma directly from the hands of the King of Sweden. Each Diploma is uniquely designed by the prize-awarding institutions for the laureate that receives it. The Diploma contains a picture and text which states the name of the laureate and normally a citation of why they received the prize.


Potential candidates

Potential recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature are difficult to predict as nominations are kept secret for fifty years until they are publicly available at the The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Currently, only nominations submitted during the years 1901 and 1950 are available for public viewing. This secrecy has led to speculations about the next Nobel laureate.

What about the rumours circling around the world about certain people being nominated for the Nobel Prize this year? - Well, either it's just a rumour, or someone among the invited nominators has leaked information. Since the nominations are kept secret for 50 years, you'll have to wait until then to find out., in Nomination FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about the Nomination and Selection of Nobel Laureates


Controversies about Nobel Laureate selections

Selma Lagerlöf, the first female writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, faced major controversies. Illustration from Svenska Dagbladet, 11 December 1909.

From 1901 to 1912, the committee was characterised by an interpretation of the "ideal direction" stated in Nobel's will as "a lofty and sound idealism". This caused Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola and Mark Twain to be rejected. Also, many believe Sweden's historic antipathy towards Russia is the reason neither Tolstoy nor Anton Chekhov was awarded the prize. During World War I and its immediate aftermath, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favouring writers from non-combatant countries. August Strindberg was repeatedly bypassed by the committee, but holds the singular distinction of being awarded an Anti-Nobel Prize, conferred by popular acclaim and national subscription and presented to him in 1912 by future prime minister Hjalmar Branting.

The academy considered Czech writer Karel Čapek's War With the Newts too offensive to the German government. He also declined to suggest some noncontroversial publication that could be cited as an example of his work, stating "Thank you for the good will, but I have already written my doctoral dissertation". He was thus denied the prize.

According to Swedish Academy archives studied by the newspaper Le Monde on their opening in 2008, French novelist and intellectual André Malraux was seriously considered for the prize in the 1950s. Malraux was competing with Albert Camus, but was rejected several times, especially in 1954 and 1955, "so long as he does not come back to novel". Thus, Camus won the prize in 1957.

Some attribute W. H. Auden's not being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to errors in his translation of 1961 Peace Prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld's Vägmärken (Markings) and to statements that Auden made during a Scandinavian lecture tour suggesting that Hammarskjöld was, like Auden, homosexual.

In 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection was heavily criticized, and described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising", adding; "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer ... whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age". Steinbeck himself, when asked if he deserved the Nobel on the day of the announcement, replied: "Frankly, no." In 2012 (50 years later), the Nobel Prize opened its archives and it was revealed that Steinbeck was a "compromise choice" among a shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen. The declassified documents showed that he was chosen as the best of a bad lot, "There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," wrote committee member Henry Olsson.

In 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined it, stating that "It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form."

Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 prize winner, did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm for fear that the U.S.S.R. would prevent his return afterwards (his works there were circulated in samizdat—clandestine form). After the Swedish government refused to honour Solzhenitsyn with a public award ceremony and lecture at its Moscow embassy, Solzhenitsyn refused the award altogether, commenting that the conditions set by the Swedes (who preferred a private ceremony) were "an insult to the Nobel Prize itself." Solzhenitsyn did not accept the award, and prize money, until 10 December 1974, after he was deported from the Soviet Union.

In 1974 Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were considered but rejected in favour of a joint award for Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both Nobel judges themselves, and unknown outside their home country. Bellow would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976; neither Greene nor Nabokov was awarded the Prize.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was nominated for the Prize several times but, as Edwin Williamson, Borges's biographer, states, the Academy did not award it to him, most likely because of his support of certain Argentine and Chilean right-wing military dictators, including Pinochet, which, according to Tóibín's review of Williamson's Borges: A Life, had complex social and personal contexts. Borges' failure to win the Nobel Prize for his support of these right-wing dictators contrasts with the Committee honoring writers who openly supported controversial left-wing dictatorships, including Joseph Stalin, in the case of Sartre and Neruda.

The award to Italian performance artist Dario Fo in 1997 was initially considered "rather lightweight" by some critics, as he was seen primarily as a performer and Catholic organizations saw the award to Dario Fo as controversial as he had previously been censured by the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano expressed surprise at Fo's selection for the prize commenting that "Giving the prize to someone who is also the author of questionable works is beyond all imagination." Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller had been strongly favoured to receive the Prize, but the Nobel organisers were later quoted as saying that they would have been "too predictable, too popular."

Camilo José Cela willingly offered his services as an informer for Franco's regime and had moved voluntarily from Madrid to Galicia during the Spanish Civil War in order to join the rebel forces there; an article by Miguel Angel Villena, Between Fear and Impunity which compiled commentaries by Spanish novelists on the noteworthy silence of the older generation of Spanish novelists on the Francoist pasts of public intellectuals appeared below a photograph of Cela during the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm in 1989.

There was also criticism of the academy's refusal to express support for Salman Rushdie in 1989, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be killed. Two members of the Academy even resigned over its refusal to support Rushdie.

The choice of the 2004 winner, Elfriede Jelinek, was protested by a member of the Swedish Academy, Knut Ahnlund, who had not played an active role in the Academy since 1996; Ahnlund resigned, alleging that selecting Jelinek had caused "irreparable damage" to the reputation of the award.

The selection of Harold Pinter for the Prize in 2005 was delayed for a couple of days, apparently due to Ahnlund's resignation, and led to renewed speculations about there being a "political element" in the Swedish Academy's awarding of the Prize. Although Pinter was unable to give his controversial Nobel Lecture in person because of ill health, he delivered it from a television studio on video projected on screens to an audience at the Swedish Academy, in Stockholm. His comments have been the source of much commentary and debate. The issue of their "political stance" was also raised in response to the awards of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Orhan Pamuk and Doris Lessing in 2006 and 2007, respectively.


French-Algerian author Albert Camus was the first African-born writer to receive the award.

The heavy focus on European authors, and authors from Sweden in particular, has been the subject of mounting criticism, even from major Swedish newspapers. The absolute majority of the laureates have been European, with Sweden itself receiving more prizes than all of Asia, as well as all of Latin America. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Academy, declared that "Europe still is the centre of the literary world" and that "the US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." In 2009, Engdahl's replacement, Peter Englund, rejected this sentiment ("In most language areas ... there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well") and acknowledged the Eurocentric nature of the award, saying that, "I think that is a problem. We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition." American critics in particular have objected that famous American authors such as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon have not yet been awarded, while lesser-known European authors have been taken into account. The 2009 award to Herta Müller, previously little-known outside (and even inside) Germany but many times named favorite for the Nobel Prize, has re-ignited criticism that the award committee is biased and Eurocentric. However, the 2010 prize was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa, a native of Peru in South America, despite the fact that he lives in Spain and holds Spanish citizenship. After the 2011 award was awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund said it was not awarded based on politics, describing such a notion as “literature for dummies”.

Overlooked literary achievements

In the history of the Nobel Prize in Literature, many literary achievements were overlooked or not recognized as such, often for political reasons, due to the lack of available translations, and ethnocentric bias. The literary historian Kjell Espmark admitted that "as to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified. Tolstoy, Ibsen and Henry James should have been rewarded instead of, for instance, Sully Prudhomme, Eucken and Heyse". While controversy sparked by blatant omissions is understandable, there are omissions which are beyond the control of the Nobel Committee such as the early death of an author as was the case with Marcel Proust and Roberto Bolaño. According to Kjell Espmark "the main works of Kafka, Cavafy, and Pessoa were not published until after their deaths and the true dimensions of Mandelstam's poetry were revealed above all in the unpublished poems that his wife saved from extinction and gave to the world long after he had perished in his Siberian exile". British novelist Tim Parks ascribed the never-ending controversy surrounding the decisions of the Nobel Committee to the "essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously" and noted that "eighteen (or sixteen) Swedish nationals will have a certain credibility when weighing up works of Swedish literature, but what group could ever really get its mind round the infinitely varied work of scores of different traditions. And why should we ask them to do that?"

Similar international prizes

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not the only literary prize for which all nationalities are eligible. Other notable international literary prizes include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Man Booker International Prize. In contrary to the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Franz Kafka Prize, the Neustadt International Prize and Man Booker International Prize are awarded bienially. The journalist Hephzibah Anderson has noted that the Man Booker International Prize "is fast becoming the more significant award, appearing an ever more competent alternative to the Nobel". The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is regarded as one of the most prestigious international literary prizes, often referred to as the American equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Like the Nobel or the Man Booker International Prize, it is awarded not for any one work, but for an entire body of work. It is frequently seen as an indicator of who may be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriel García Márquez (1972 Neustadt, 1982 Nobel), Czesław Miłosz (1978 Neustadt, 1980 Nobel), Octavio Paz (1982 Neustadt, 1990 Nobel), Tomas Tranströmer (1990 Neustadt, 2011 Nobel) were first awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The annual Prince of Asturias Prize (Spain) in Humanities often honours writers, with Arthur Miller and Philip Roth both recipients.

The Man Booker International Prize "highlights one writer's overall contribution to fiction on the world stage" and "has literary excellence as its sole focus". Established in 2005, it is not yet possible to analyze its importance on potential future Nobel Prize in Literature winners. However, the winners of the Man Booker International Prize, Ismail Kadare (2005), Chinua Achebe (2007), Alice Munro (2009), and Philip Roth (2011) are all considered perennial contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There are also prizes for honouring the lifetime achievement of writers in specific languages, like the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (for Spanish language, established in 1976) and the Camões Prize (for Portuguese language, established in 1989). Nobel winners who were also awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize include Octavio Paz (1981 Cervantes, 1990 Nobel); Mario Vargas Llosa (1994 Cervantes, 2010 Nobel); and Camilo José Cela (1995 Cervantes, 1989 Nobel). José Saramago is the only author to win both the Camões Prize (1995) and the Nobel Prize (1998) to date.

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