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How They Pick the Nobel Prize in Literature

The award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Dario Fo in 1997 delighted some and galled other disciples of literature around the world.

How could the folks in Stockholm choose this Italian joker, skipping over America's Arthur Miller, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, the Czech Republic's Milan Kundera, South Africa's J.M. Coetzee, and dozens of other notable writers? Picking an actor/playwright, known for his assaults on capitalism, Catholic religiosity, and the Italian government, raised a din of discord among the literate.

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Contention is nothing new to the prize; the choice of laureates has been marbled with dispute since the first winner, Sully Prudhomme, was announced in 1901.

So again, this year, the literary world awaits next week's Nobel announcement both bemused and expectant. Who will be picked? More important, why?

In selecting Mr. Fo, the Swedish Academy cited him as a writer "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden." Defending the integrity of the weak has a lustrous history in the prize for literature. John Steinbeck was cited for "The Grapes of Wrath" and Ernest Hemingway for "The Old Man and the Sea." Both works evoke empathy for the working poor.

At the turn of the century, debate erupted over Leo Tolstoy's rejection in favor of Prudhomme. The Nobel Committee justified its rebuff of the Russian novelist by the criteria outlined in Alfred Nobel's will, which specifies that recipients be those who, "during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,... have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.... No consideration whatever shall be given to ... nationality."

In defending its choice, the academy wrote: "In countless of his works he [Tolstoy] denies not only the church, but the state, even the right of property - which he himself, inconsistently, enjoys - and contests the right of individuals and peoples to self-defense."

Concepts such as "ideal direction" and "benefit to mankind" provide both wide latitude and little direction for action. Nobel's will was handwritten, and portions of it were somewhat unclear. Over decades, the interpretation of the criteria of the will has changed, particularly the exact meaning of the word ideal or idealistic.

From the beginning, the academy selected writers for their collective writing rather than a particular title or "the most outstanding work." Only nine writers have specific titles mentioned in their citations.

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The mechanism of achieving the podium in Stockholm is actually quite straightforward. The Swedish Academy solicits nominations from a variety of likely sources: national literary societies, academies, university professors, and previous winners. Nominations must reach the academy before Feb. 1 of the year in question. The academy appoints a working committee, the Nobel Committee, to examine these nominations, using specialists as necessary (writers in languages the committee cannot read). The committee recommends a winner to the Swedish Academy, where a voice vote is taken in early October. The choice is announced immediately and the prize awarded at the Concert Hall in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

The process is democratic, requiring a majority decision. The Swedish Academy has a permanent membership of 18, resulting in occasional tie votes. The academy may award the prize jointly and has done so four times. However, the academy is under no obligation to issue a prize each year, and seven times no prize was awarded.

Imagine that you are one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, appointed by the king for life (receiving a small silver token with the image of Gustav III for attending weekly meetings, every Thursday at 5 p.m.). The date is Feb. 21. The academy has received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of nominations to be considered, some in languages that no one on the committee can read. The committee has until the summer recess, May 31, to reduce the long list down to five finalists. When meetings resume the week of Sept. 15, the committee has less than a month to reach agreement on the award. It is a daunting task.

What category of writing has won the most prizes? The answer is elusive. Many of the winners practice their craft in more than one area with stunning success. Boris Pasternak was cited both for his poetry and his Russian epics, while Czeslaw Milosz writes poetry, essays, and memoirs of great distinction. Derek Walcott is both a poet and a playwright of high repute.

In broad terms, novelists have garnered the most prizes, followed by poets, then playwrights. Two historians, Christian Matthais Theodor Mommsen and Winston Churchill, won the award for literature. (Churchill was also cited for oratory.) Philosophers have won four times: Rudolf Eucken, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and John-Paul Sartre.

In spite of the broad reach of the academy's nominations, the results of their efforts can be interpreted as culturally and sexually biased by those so inclined. Writers working outside of mainstream European languages are rare among the winners: Croatian writer Ivo Andric, Japanese writers Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, Jaroslav Seifert from Czechoslovakia, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt.

Women have won only nine of the 91 prizes, suggesting either a paucity of great women writers or a male bias on the part of the academy. Three of the last eight recipients of the prize have been women: Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Wislawa Szymborska.

For reasons known only to the academy - they appoint successors to open positions internally, approved by the king - only four women have served as members of the Swedish Academy.

A visceral sense of the country and its people plays well in Stockholm. A dozen writers were cited for such qualities in their work: "reflects the natural scenery and native spirit of his people" (Frederic Mistral); "rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life" (Pearl Buck); "deep-rooted in the national traits and traditions" (Miguel Asturias); "reflecting a continent's life and conflicts" (Garcia Marquez).

Idealism follows closely behind regional identity as a common theme in the citations.

The Swedish Academy anoints writers who extend the borders of serious literature to include countries or ethnic groups not previously represented.

The Soviet government never accepted the humanistic basis of the prize. Ivan Bunin, the first Russian-born writer to win, was an exile in France at the time of the award, having fled the Bolsheviks. Alexander Solzhenitsyn refused to travel to the award ceremony in Stockholm, fearing that he would not be allowed to return to the Soviet Union. He was expelled four years later for publishing "The Gulag Archipelago." Joseph Brodsky, the last Soviet writer to win the prize, was tried for the civil crime of practicing poetry ("parasitism") before emigrating to the United States.

Ultimately, the vaunted reputation of the Nobel Prize in Literature seems entrenched in world opinion. The prize, which Saul Bellow called "super-certification," highlights writers and literary traditions that warrant more attention than they have previously received. It often engenders heated debate about the relative worth of contenders. Great writers who have been denied the prize are great writers all the same, and their works will endure.

In the end, perhaps it is wise to consider the words of Alfred Nobel himself: "Justice is to be found only in imagination."

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