The Nobel Prize in Literature

By Kelly Tabbutt

What are the Nobel Prizes?

The Nobel Prizes recognize tireless effort and world-changing humanistic accomplishments in the fields of science, philanthropy, and literature.

photos of books on a table
Photo by Kevin Lehtla on Unsplash

The Nobel Prizes were instituted five years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite (except for the prize in Economic Sciences which was added in 1969). The Nobel Prizes are typically announced in October, though they are awarded every year on the anniversary of his death on December 10th.

In his last will and testament, Nobel dedicated his fortunes to instituting the Nobel prizes. The Nobel prizes are recognized world-over as the highest honor and recognition that can be bestowed upon an individual. The Nobel Prizes recognize tireless effort and world-changing humanistic accomplishments in the fields of science, philanthropy, and literature. 

Seven Nobel Prizes are awarded across the fields of Physiology/Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Economic Sciences, Literature, and Peace. In his will, Alfred Nobel dictated that the Nobel Prize laureates should be selected by four institutions: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, and Economics), The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet (Physiology/Medicine), The Swedish Academy (Literature), and the Norwegian Nobel Committee (Peace). 

What Does the Nobel Prize in Literature Recognize?

The specific criteria for choosing a laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature is not available. In fact, the criteria are intentionally vague. However, one of the members of the panel for choosing Nobel Prize in Literature nominees, Sara Danius, speaking at Duke University in 2017, did discuss some broad criteria that the Swedish Academy Nobel Prize selection committee consider. 

Essentially, the Swedish Academy nominations panel look at the author’s body of work, that is, the prize is given not for a single piece of literature, but for an author’s life’s work. The nominations panel chooses nominees and a laureate who have created a body of work which offers an innovation to the field of literature in terms of form or content. 

Why is it Important?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards given for intellectual achievement in the world.” The significance of the Nobel Prize in Literature is ultimately a question of the significance and power of literature itself. It should be noted that the definition of “literature” for the purposes of the Nobel Prize in this area is broader than books. “Literature” in this case refers to a wide range of the written art form including: novels, poetry, journalism, and song writing.

Examining the reasoning behind choosing previous laureates sheds significant light on the meaning and significance of this recognition. The Nobel Prize in Literature is bestowed upon those who manifest the greatest potential of writing as an art form rendering an expression of human experience which both encapsulates the facets of the human experience and brings light to new ways of seeing, being, and expressing. 

Background 

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to 116 laureates since its institution on December 10th, 1901. In Alfred Nobel’s will, the inventor specified that the Nobel Prizes be bestowed upon those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and the Nobel Prize in Literature be given to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” 

The Swedish Academy was indicated as the institution which should determine the nominees and ultimately the laureate for this prize. The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustav III, holds as its key mission the preservation of Swedish language and literature. 

Previous Winners 

Though there is no set “definition” or criteria for what it takes to win a Nobel Prize in Literature and Alfred Nobel’s description of the intent of the prize leaves much to the imagination, an overview of a handful of the 116 laureates since 1901 gives some telling examples of what it means to win this prestigious award.

The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901 to the poet Sully Prudhomme “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.”

Roger Martin du Gard took the prize in 1937 “for the artistic power and truth with which he has depicted human conflict as well as some fundamental aspects of contemporary life in his novel-cycle Les Thibault.”

Albert Camus won this recognition in 1957 “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”

1960 saw this award given to Saint-John Perse “for the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time.”

Toni Morrison won this place in history in 1993 as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

Bob Dylan received the prize in literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In 2019 the most recent winner, Peter Handke, gained this award “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Over the years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has honored writers and artists from many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds.

Over the years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has honored writers and artists from many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Along with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Literature Nobel is one of the more diverse Nobel Prizes, honoring international writers beyond the primarily American and European writers discussed above — such as Wole Soyinka of Nigeria (1986), Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt (1988), Japan’s Kazuo Ishiguro (2017), and Gabriel Garcia Márquez of Colombia (1982).

Visit nobelprize.org, the official Nobel Prizes page, for more information on the Nobel Prizes and to find out the winners for 2020!

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