The Nobel Prize for Literature

history, controversies, and complete list of winners

The Nobel Prize for Literature was first established in 1901. It is awarded annually to a writer who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. This might appear to be a simple formula, but it has led to a number of controversies.

The term ‘ideal’ has often been interpreted politically as meaning work of a naive and idealistic tendency. This has sometimes led to accusations that only works promoting virtuous behaviour were being recognised. It has sometimes been accused of being ‘a Nobel Peace Prize in disguise’.

The prize is awarded in October each year, along with the prizes for Chemistry, Physics, Peace, Economics, and Medicine. It is funded from the legacy of Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune from the invention of dynamite. He also owned the Bofors company which manufactured armaments. The idealism of the award and the source of its financing is an irony which has not been lost on commentators ever since.

The award procedure starts with nominations that are canvassed in the early part of each year. These nominations are scrutinised by a committee, and a short list of five names is drawn up and submitted to the Swedish Academy. There is a vote, and anyone receiving more than half the votes is declared winner. The nominations are then kept secret for fifty years before being made public. The prize is awarded for a body of work, rather than for a single publication.

The prize itself consists of a gold medal, a diploma, a cash award, and an invitation to deliver a lecture at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The value of the award is determined by percentage returns on the investment made in Nobel’s original will, but is usually in excess of one million US dollars.

The winners

A glance through the historical list of prizewinners will quickly reveal three curious features, which have been the subject of much comment. The list reveals:

  • famous writers who were not awarded the prize
  • prize winners who are now completely unknown
  • winners who were once famous but are now in decline

The Nobel Prize for Literature

Samuel Beckett – winner 1969

The overlooked

The prize must be awarded to a living writer, but the early years of the prize in particular are rich in what can now be seen as missed opportunities. Anton Chekhov was still alive in the first phase of the award, but was not given the prize. The same is true of Henrik Ibsen, who was a powerful influence on other writers and is still widely performed today. Leo Tolstoy did not die until 1910, and had a world wide reputation – but he was never a winner. Henry James was nominated for the prize three times but never given the award.

Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy both had reputations which stretched across Europe and American and were both alive until the 1920s – but neither was given the award. Virginia Woolf was publishing mature works now regarded as modern classics for the last two decades of her life until her death in 1941. The same is true of James Joyce, who is now seen as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Neither Woolf nor Joyce was awarded the Prize.

There are some borderline cases. Marcel Proust was still working on his masterpiece A la recherche du temps perdues when he died in 1922. Franz Kafka did not die until 1924, but he published very little in his own lifetime. Almost nothing was known of the work of the Russian writers Mikhail Bulgakov and Osip Mandelstam because of their persecution during the Stalinist period. Other notable absentees include Mark Twain, Emile Zola, and Vladimir Nabokov.

The Nobel Prize for Literature

Saul Bellow – winner 1976

The unknown

This is a slightly embarrassing category, because somebody, somewhere, might well have heard of and maybe even have read some of these totally forgotten and unknown writers. But measured against writers of the stature of Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, and Saul Bellow, it is extremely difficult to believe that anybody in the twenty-first century is seriously immersed in the works of Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Jose Echegary, Giosue Carducci, and Rudolf Christoph Eucken. Those are the older prizewinners: more recent names include Imre Kertesz, Elfride Jelinek, Herta Muller, and Thomas Transtromer. Hand on heart, have you ever even heard of these writers, let alone read their works?

The fading flowers

Literary reputations of even the highest order are subject to the ravages of time, and not even the imprimatur of the Swedish Academy is a guarantee against the decay of public esteem. Writers who were once regarded as unassailably great may now be deemed passe or outmoded. Does anyone really read the work of Andre Gide any more? He was celebrated in his day – and supported many worthy causes. But now, probably few, with the exception of students of the history of modern French literaturewill bother to read him.

The same is true of other winners such as Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner. An even more dramatic example is the case of the German novelist Gunter Grass, winner in 1999, whose reputation has gradually declined since the success of his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959). This fading reputation was further diminished when he revealed (after a silence of sixty years) that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during the Second World War.

The Nobel Prize for Literature

Nadine Gordimer – winner 1991


The award sometimes causes controversy. Some cases arise because of the political background to the award, as well as the perceived wisdom of the choice of winner. For instance in 1958 the award went to Boris Pasternak, largely on the strength of his international best-selling novel Dr Zhivago. The Soviet government forced him to publicly reject the honour and he was forbidden to travel to Stockholm to accept the prize. However, the Prize committee does not accept rejections, and the honour still stands.

The same thing happened (under more amicable circumstances) when the Prize was awarded to Jean Paul Sartre in 1964. He made it known that he could not accept the award because he had consistently argued against official honours in the past. However, his name remains on the list of winners.

Other controversial issues arise from what might be called false categorisation. For a prize which is normally awarded to novelists, poets, and dramatists, it is difficult to see why it would be given to a historian (Theodo Mommsen, 1902) a philosopher (Bertrand Russell, 1950) a politician (Winston Churchill, 1953) or a pop singer (Bob Dylan, 2016) . It was claimed that Dylan’s award was for the poetry of his song lyrics – which illustrates the element of controversy still at work. To underscore the point, he did not turn up in Stockholm to deliver the acceptance lecture, but had someone else read it out for him.

The Nobel Prize for Literature

complete list of winners

1901 Sully Prudhomme France
1902 Theodor Mommsen Germany
1903 Bjornstjerne Bjarnsten Norway
1904 Frederick Mistral France
1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz Poland
1906 Giosuè Carducci Italy
1907 Rudyard Kipling United Kingdom
1908 Rudolf Christoph Eucken     Germany
1909 Selma Lagerlöf Sweden
1910 Paul von Heyse Germany
1911 Maurice Maeterlinck France
1912 Gerhart Hauptmann Germany
1913 Rabindranath Tagore India
1914 No prize awarded
1915 Romain Rolland France
1916 Verner von Heidenstam Sweden
1917 Karl Adolph Gjellerup Denmark
1918 No prize awarded
1919 Carl Spitteler Switzerland
1920 Knut Hamsun Norway
1921 Anatole France France
1922 Jacinto Benavente Spain
1923 William Butler Yeats Ireland
1924 Wladyslaw Reymont Poland
1925 George Bernard Shaw Ireland
1926 Grazia Deledda Italy
1927 Henri Bergson France
1928 Sigrid Undset Norway
1929 Thomas Mann Germany
1930 Sinclair Lewis United States
1931 Erik Axel Karlfeldt Sweden
1932 John Galsworthy United Kingdom
1933 Ivan Bunin Russia/France
1934 Luigi Pirandello Italy
1935 No prize awarded
1936 Eugene O’Neill United States
1937 Roger Martin du Gard France
1938 Pearl S. Buck United States
1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää Finland
1940-43 No prizes awarded
1944 Johannes Vilhelm Jensen Denmark
1945 Gabriela Mistral Chile
1946 Hermann Hesse Switzerland
1947 André Gide France
1948 T.S. Eliot United Kingdom
1949 William Faulkner United States
1950 Bertrand Russell United Kingdom
1951 Per Largerkvist Sweden
1952 François Mauriac France
1953 Sir Winston Churchill United Kingdom
1954 Ernest Hemingway United States
1955 Halldór Laxness Iceland
1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Spain
1957 Albert Camus France
1958 Boris Pasternak Soviet Union
1959 Salvatore Quasimodo Italy
1960 Saint-John Perse France
1961 Ivo Andric Yugoslavia
1962 John Steinbeck United States
1963 Giorgos Seferis Greece
1964 Jean-Paul Sartre France
1965 Mikhail Sholokhov Soviet Union
1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon Israel
1967 Miguel Ángel Asturias Guatemala
1968 Yasunari Kawabata Japan
1969 Samuel Beckett Ireland
1970 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Soviet Union
1971 Pablo Neruda Chile
1972 Heinrich Böll Germany
1973 Patrick White Australia
1974 Eyvind Johnson Sweden
1975 Eugenio Montale Italy
1976 Saul Bellow United States
1977 Vicente Alexandre Spain
1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer United States
1979 Odysseas Elytis Greece
1980 Czeslaw Milosz Poland
1981 Elias Canetti United Kindom
1982 Gabriel García Márquez Colombia
1983 William Golding United Kingdom
1984 Jaroslav Seifert Czechoslovakia
1985 Claude Simon France
1986 Wole Soyinka Nigeria
1987 Joseph Brodsky United States
1988 Naguib Mahfouz Egypt
1989 Camilo José Cela Spain
1990 Octavio Paz Mexico
1991 Nadine Gordimer South Africa
1992 Derek Walcott Saint Lucia
1993 Toni Morrison United States
1994 Kenzaburo Oe Japan
1995 Seamus Heaney Ireland
1996 Wislawa Szymborska Poland
1997 Dario Fo Italy
1998 José Saramago Portugal
1999 Günter Grass Germany
2000 Gao Xingjian China
2001 Sir V. S. Naipaul United Kingdom
2002 Imre Kertész Hungary
2003 J.M.Coetzee South Africa
2004 Elfriede Jelinek Austria
2005 Harold Pinter United Kingdom
2006 Orhan Pamuk Turkey
2007 Doris Lessing United Kingdom
2008 J.M.G Le Clezio France
2009 Herta Mueller Germany
2010 Mario Vargas Llosa Peru
2011 Thomas Transtroemer Sweden
2012 Mo Yan China
2013 Alice Munro Canada
2014 Patrick Modiano France
2015 Svetlana Alexievich Belarus
2016 Bob Dylan United States

© Roy Johnson 2017

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