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The Nobel Prize in Literature ( ) is awarded annually, since 1901, to an author from any country who has, in the words from 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 utmärktaste i idealisk riktning). The "work" in this case refers to an author's work as a whole, though individual works are sometimes also cited. The Swedish Academymarker decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize in any given year and announces the name of the chosen laureate in early October.

Nobel's choice of emphasis on "idealistic" or "ideal" (in English translation) in his criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature has led to recurrent controversy. (In the original Swedish, the word idealisk can be translated as either "idealistic" or "ideal".) In the early twentieth century, the Nobel Committee interpreted the intent of the will strictly and did not award certain world-renowned authors of the time such as James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen and Henry James. More recently, the wording has been interpreted more liberally, and the Prize is awarded both for lasting literary merit and for evidence of consistent idealism on some significant level, most recently a kind of idealism championing human rights on a broad scale, and hence more political, some would argue.

"The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm is when each Nobel Laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty the King of Sweden. ... Under the eyes of a watching world, the Nobel Laureate receives three things: a diploma, a medal, and a document confirming the prize amount". The 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Herta Müller. She was cited as someone, "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed". ; she received a prize amount of 10,000,000 SEK (slightly more than 1 million, or US$1.4 million).

The Swedish Academy has attracted significant criticism in recent years. Some 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.

Nomination procedure

2008 Announcement of the Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm
Each year the Swedish Academymarker 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 about fifty 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, and by summer the list is reduced further to some five names. The subsequent months are then spent in reviewing the works of eligible 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. The process is similar to that of other Nobel Prizes.

The prize money of the Nobel Prize has been fluctuating since its inauguration but at present stands at ten million Swedish kronor. The winner also receives a gold medal and a Nobel diploma and is invited to give a lecture during "Nobel Week" in Stockholmmarker; the highlight is the prize-giving ceremony and banquet on December 10.

Controversies about Nobel Laureate selections

Prize in Literature has a history of controversial awards and notorious snubs. Notable literati have pointed out that more indisputably major writers have been ignored by the Nobel Committee than have been honored by it, including Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, August Strindberg, John Updike, Arthur Miller, and others, often for political or extra-literary reasons. Conversely, many writers whom contemporary and subsequent criticism regard as minor, inconsequential or transitional have been the recipient of the award.

From 1901 to 1912, the committee was characterized by an interpretation of the "ideal direction" stated in Nobel's will as "a lofty and sound idealism", which caused Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola and Mark Twain to be rejected. Also, many believe Sweden's historic antipathy towards Russia was the reason neither Tolstoy nor Anton Chekhov were awarded the prize. During World War I and its immediate aftermath, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favouring writers from non-combatant countries.

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

French novelist and intellectual André Malraux was seriously considered for the prize in the 1950s, according to Swedish Academymarker archives studied by newspaper Le Monde on their opening in 2008. 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", and 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 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for 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.marker would prevent his return afterwards (his works there were circulated in samizdat—clandestine form). After the Swedish government refused to honor 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 favor 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.

Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren has also been overlooked, with some critics complaining that the Academy does not adequately recognize children's literature.

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 had previously been censured by the Roman Catholic Church. 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."

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, and two members of the Academy 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.

Orhan Pamuk
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, "Art, Truth and Politics", in person, due to his hospitalization for ill health, he delivered it from a television studio on video to an audience projected on three large screens at the Swedish Academymarker, in Stockholmmarker, and it was simultaneously transmitted on Channel Four, in the UKmarker, on the evening of 7 December 2005. The 46-minute television transmission was introduced by friend and fellow playwright David Hare. Subsequently, the full text and streaming video formats were posted for the public on the Nobel Prize and Swedish Academy official Websites. In these formats Pinter's Nobel Lecture has been widely watched, cited, quoted, and distributed by print and online media and the source of much commentary and debate. A privately-printed limited edition, Art, Truth and Politics: The Nobel Lecture, is published by Faber and Faber (2006). 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.

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. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Academy, declared that "Europe still is the center 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." The 2009 award to Herta Mueller, previously little-known outside Germany but many times named favorite for the Nobel prize, has re-ignited criticism that the award committee is biased as Eurocentric mostly by the US press.

List of Laureates

See also


  1. Marjorie Kehe, "Are US Writers Unworthy of the Nobel Prize?" Christian Science Monitor, Chapter & Verse Blog. Web. The Christian Science Monitor, 2 October 2008. Accessed 15 March 2009.
  2. Olivier Truc, "Et Camus obtint enfin le prix Nobel". Le Monde, 28 December 2008.
  3. Harold Orlans, "Self-Centered Translating: Why W. H. Auden Misinterpreted 'Markings' When Translating It from Swedish to English", Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (published by Heldref Publications for The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), 1 May 2000, Highbeam Encyclopedia,, accessed 26 April 2008: "Swedish dismay at the mangled translation may have cost Auden the Nobel prize in literature."
  4. Alex Hunnicutt, "Dag Hammarskjöld", glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture (Heldref Publications, 2004),, accessed 11 August 2006: "Unless some hidden manuscript surfaces or an aging lover suddenly feels moved to revelation, it seems unlikely the world will ever know for sure the details of Hammarskjöld's sexual experience. W. H. Auden, who translated Markings, was convinced of his [Hammarsköld's] homosexuality; it is thought that saying so publicly during a lecture tour of Scandinavia may have cost Auden the Nobel Prize for Literature that he was widely expected to receive in the 1960s."
  5. Stig Fredrikson, "How I Helped Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Smuggle His Nobel Lecture from the USSR",, 22 February 2006, accessed 12 October 2006.
  6. New studies agree that Beauvoir is eclipsing Sartre as a philosopher and writer The Independent May 25, 2008. Retrieved on January 4, 2009.
  7. Textos escondidos de Pablo Neruda Libros April 14, 2005. Retrieved on January 4, 2009.
  8. Julie Carroll, " 'Pope and Witch' Draws Catholic Protests", The Catholic Spirit, 27 February 2007, accessed 13 October 2007.
  9. "Nobel Stuns Italy's Left-wing Jester", The Times, 10 October 1997, rpt. in Archives of a list at, accessed 17 October 2007.
  10. Associated Press, "Who Deserves Nobel Prize? Judges Don't Agree", MSNBC, 11 October 2005, accessed 13 October 2007.
  11. Pinter's "Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth & Politics" is posted online on the official website of the Nobel Prize,, and it is also available on DVD.
  12. Dan Kellum, "Lessing's Legacy of Political Literature: The Nation: Skeptics Call It A Nonliterary Nobel Win, But Academy Saw Her Visionary Power", CBS News, rpt. from The Nation (column), 14 October 2007, accessed 17 October 2007.
  13. Dagens Nyheter Akademien väljer helst en europé (The Academy prefers to pick a European)
  14. The Nobel Committee has no clue about American literature
  15. [1]
  16. Jordan, Mary. Author's Nobel Stirs Shock-and-'Bah'. Washington Post. Friday, October 9, 2009.

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