The Nobel Prize in Literature

A slightly irreverent FAQ

What is it?

The Nobel Prize for Literature is one of 5 prizes awarded annually since 1901 according to the last will and testament of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), inventor of dynamite. The other prizes are for Chemistry, Medicine, Physics and Peace. (There’s also an economics prize that isn’t official but sort of piggybacks on the useful ones, as economists tend to do.) The prize is roughly 8 million SEK (~US$1 million) per prize, plus a nifty medal and a hot meal. It’s not awarded for any one work of literature but for an author’s entire career.

Who hands it out?

The money comes from Nobel’s will (yes, still. Nobody ever lost money inventing good ways to blow shit up). According to Nobel’s wishes, the winner of the Literature prize is chosen by the Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 to “further the purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language,” ie publish dictionaries, studies of 19th century literature, etc. This means the Nobel is a comparatively new hobby for them, and a rather small part of what they do — they are not the “Nobel Academy”.

Each of the Nobel prizes (literature, chemistry, medicine, physics and peace) is chosen by a different organisation, who do not coordinate their picks in any way.

The winners are made public in October, and the prizes are presented by His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf at a big banquet at Stockholm City Hall in December.

A million bucks, hmm? How do you win?

First, you have to be nominated. Tons of people from all over the world nominate about 300 writers each year, including novelists, poets, a couple of non-fiction writers, and Bob Dylan. The Academy then selects the winner by… well, read the link above. The list of nominations and the deliberations of the Academy remain confidential for 50 years, there is no public short list, and the Academy has no obligation to take all nominations seriously. In other words, being nominated is like buying a lottery ticket; you can’t win without it, but you’re not going to win with it either. Except after you haven’t won, you won’t even know if you had a ticket.

Some writers ask friends with tenure nominate them and then call themselves “Nobel Prize nominees”. If you see an article claiming a writer is nominated for the prize, their agent wrote it. Announcing your nomination is considered grounds for disqualification, but given how small the chances of winning are, it’s probably a better way to make money by selling a few extra books.

So who gets it?

Drum roll, please:
The person who has produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.”

…What the hell does that mean?

See, that’s the thing: no one knows. That’s what Nobel wrote in his will, and since he’s no longer around to explain or rephrase it, it’s up to the Academy to interpret what he meant. The interpretation has changed with the zeitgeist over the last 100+ years. The motivations for each winner usually try to explain how they match the critiera, which make them fun reading.

How on Earth can they pick the objectively best author in the entire world under those circumstances?

They can’t. No one can. There is no such thing as objectivity in measuring literature. Anyone who thinks they can is always going to be disappointed.

Fine, fine. Who’s won it?

These guys. (And very occasional gal.)

Why didn’t Author X get it?

A lot of people claim to know exactly why certain authors get or don’t get the prize (hint: it’s always political, see below). Truth is, until 50 years have gone by, we usually have no way of knowing if they were even nominated. Pick a reason:

  • There’s one award to give out each year, and on average more than one deserving author. That’s math even us book nerds can handle.
  • See above re: changing interpretations of Nobel’s will. Tolstoy was considered too radical at the time, for instance. See this 1966 article.
  • Not everyone is a prophet in their own lifetime, so authors who die young are SOL. See: Kafka, Franz; Proust, Marcel; Bolaño, Robert; etc.
  • The Academy are a bunch of literary snobs, elected by other snobs for the specific job of being snobbish about language and literature. This may not encourage them to be populists.
  • People keep expecting the Academy to validate their reading habits. Not gonna happen (see: snobs, literary).
  • The Academy has really boring taste sometimes. Joyce and Woolf were considered way too weird in their day.
  • People seem to think that the longer they speculate about Author X getting the prize, the better their chances of getting it. Whether the Academy gives a damn about how often an author has been mentioned by other people is unknown.
  • Authors die. The Nobel can’t be given out posthumously. Good thing, or they’d have to start with Homer and work their way forward.
  • Authors live. Winners tend to have reached a certain maturity before getting the prize, and not getting it one year doesn’t mean you won’t get it next year or 20 years from now. See: Lessing, Doris.

So some writers, for various reasons, end up without a Nobel prize. Funnily enough, we keep reading them anyway. If Tolstoy, Borges, Woolf, Joyce and Twain didn’t get it, there’s no shame in not getting a Nobel prize.

Why isn’t Author X on the shortlist?

Again, there is no public shortlist. The lists of favourites you see everywhere come from Ladbrokes and other betting firms, who have no idea who’s actually in the running for the prize, or how their chances of actually change over time. As this article explains:

  • Their list of favourites was brainstormed about 10 years ago by by a small group of employees who phoned up a few journalists and asked about their favourites, and has remained largely intact since then. They add new names arbitrarily based on who they can get people to bet on.
  • The odds shift quickly not because the betting firms have some inside information, but simply because almost no one bets on the Nobel. One single €20 bet is enough to immediately make an outsider the favourite, complete with press releases about how Ladbrokes have suspended bets following a huge bet, which journalists eagerly reblog complete with a link to the betting site. Hey, it’s cheaper than buying ad space.
  • For some unfathomable reason, the betting firms do little to discourage people from betting on well-known names with zero realistic hope of winning (see: Dylan, Bob). You’d almost think their chief interest here wasn’t literary debate.

You seem awfully bitter about people betting on the Nobel.

Not at all. If you want to bet money on the slim chance of your favourite author getting it, best of luck. I’m just puzzled that that’s all that ever gets discussed in the leadup to the Nobel. Even sports journalists don’t only write about the bookies’ odds of Manchester United winning the cup; why are culture journalists so much lazier?

The prize only goes to authors nobody’s ever heard of.

It’s rarely awarded to the latest best-sellers, true. The prize isn’t intended to reflect popular taste — hell, it’s explicitly supposed to award “outstanding” works, which sort of implies, y’know, standing out.

Personally, I think the “nobody’s ever heard of Nobel winners” meme is pretty sad. If you’ve honestly never heard of, say, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Camus, Solzhenitsyn… or to take some of the more recent ones, Lessing, Llosa, Munro… are you sure you’re as interested in literature as you think you are? And if they really do pick someone you’ve never heard of, hey, now you’ve heard of them. You have gained knowledge. Is this a bad thing? Personally, I love finding out about authors I hadn’t heard of.

Also, I’ve never heard of the guy who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry last year. Boo! Hiss! Elitists! Give it to some chemist everyone knows!

It only goes to white European men. #nobelsowhite

Fair (sorry) criticism, especially if you look at the entire 115-year history of the prize. Various members of the Academy have expressed regrets about this and claim to be trying to overcome it; they actively encourage nominations from outside Europe and commission translations of interesting untranslated authors. Arguably, the prize has become slightly more diverse over the last 15–20 years. Of course, even if they were to go solely with WOC winners for the next 20 years, it would still barely put a dent in the overall statistics without some sort of time machine (hint hint, potential Physics winners).

Why do they hate America?

So far, about 10% of the winners have been from the US. Not too shabby for an international award. Feel free to compare it to the international spread of the Oscars.

But they said no US writer would ever get it!

Of course they didn’t. About 10 years ago the former secretary of the Academy, Horace Engdahl, said that he personally thought US literature as a whole was “insular” and “ignorant” regarding non-US literature, but that there is “powerful literature in all big cultures.” (He’s said similar things about literature in other countries too; see above re: snob, literary.) A hundred angry US bloggers, trying to prove him wrong, have been whining ever since that it only goes to foreign authors they haven’t heard of. Granted, no USAmerican has won it in about 20 years, but a billion Indians have gone without since 1913 without anyone seeing a conspiracy in that.

Everybody knows that it’s just political.

Interesting, considering the 50 years rule. But… Look, it’s explicitly supposed to go to authors who deal with idea(l)s. Those tend to touch upon political or politicized subjects. The Academy were accused of being anti-American pinko commies when Pinter got it, reactionary cryptofascists when Llosa got it five years later, and then they converted back to communism when Mo Yan got it. There’s no pleasing some people, especially those who want to reduce something as complex as literature to a simple black-or-white with-us-or-against-us political statement.

Of course a high-profile literature prize is political in a political world. We use literature to look at the world around us, and any author who says nothing and ruffles zero feathers should be disqualified from the prize. (Again, Tolstoy didn’t get it because he was too controversial and the Academy was too chickenshit to award one of the world’s greatest authors at the time; let’s not repeat that mistake too often.) However, the idea that it’s only political, that the Academy only looks at an author’s political opinions or other factors and that their actual writing is unimportant, seems to rest on the idea that literature has no power on its own and is, ultimately, pointless — which is a strange position for supposed book fans to take. Fuck that noise. Read the books.

This whole prize is a mess. I have ideas. Shouldn’t we have a say in this?

Understandable reaction, but unless you’re willing to contest Nobel’s will in a court of law, no. It’s private money, handed out by a non-government organisation. It’s really none of our business what they do with it (as long as they don’t give it to, say, Paulo Coelho or Dan Brown, obviously).

Why should we care, then?

Who said you should? If you don’t, don’t. After all, it’s really just a book recommendation with a price tag on it.

Why do you care, then?

Good question. The importance people assign to the Nobel is out of proportion to how well it actually works. But I also think we need to talk about literature as something than just a bestseller list — how it holds up over time, what it says about the time and place it’s written and/or read in, the power of the written word. (Hence all the gifs.) What I like about the Nobel is its (attempted) scope and timelessness, and that deservedly or not, it gets people talking about it. If you think literature matters, then that discussion is worth having.

Also, it gives pretentious book nerds a few days of media attention before they’re once again replaced by politicians and reality TV stars, and I love that.

End rant. Thank you, gentle readers.