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Nobel Prize for Literature

areppim chart and statistics of literature Nobel prize winners from 1901 to 2018, indicating the names and nationality. Literature is the intellectual field where Nobel prizes are most widely shared by the world nations, large and small. Nationals of 41 states and one Stateless person have been honored. The category is the only one to acknowledge and recognize a stateless person. It is also one of the only three world most prestigious awards that have been spontaneously declined by the recipient. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre from France did not accept the Nobel for literature.


In 2018, the Nobel Committee decided not to award the Nobel Prize for literature. Whatever the stated - and the many rumored - reasons for such a radical step, the decision should be viewed as a sensible one, after the controversies that surrounded some awards in the recent past. Indeed, the Committee should stop and ponder the ways and means to restore their dented credibility, at least as the literature and the peace prizes are concerned.

Literature is the intellectual field where Nobel prizes are most widely shared by the world nations, large and small. Nationals of 41 states and one Stateless person have been honored. The category is the only one to acknowledge and recognize a stateless person. It is also one of the only three world most prestigious awards that have been spontaneously declined by the recipient. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre from France did not accept the Nobel for literature. In 1973, Le Duc Tho from Viet Nam refused the Nobel for peace. In 2006 Grigori Perelman from Russia declined the Fields medal for mathematics. There have been other instances of renunciation to Nobel awards, but apparently not voluntary. The 1958 literature Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak from the Soviet Union also declined the award, but allegedly he did not do so of his own free will. The Germans Kuhn in 1938 and Butenandt in 1939 were forced by the Nazi regime to decline their Nobel prizes for chemistry.

The Nobel for literature has been given to authors little known for their literary artistic talent. Winston Churchill, who prolifically wrote about his own career activities, better known as a hard-boiled conservative, imperialist, jingoistic British politician, who made himself quite a war hawk reputation in the South African Boer war, and eventually shone as the United Kingdom's leader against Nazi Germany during World War II, was awarded the prize in 1953. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher and 1927 laureate, is still a thinker to be reckoned with, but few would consider him a creative literary artist. Other instances, including the 2006, 2012, and 2015 awards have generated controversy, some critics insisting that the choice has been motivated on the grounds of international diplomacy and political bias, rather than by the sheer literary value of the recipients' works.

The 2016 prize given to Bob Dylan, a US pop singer, pushed things a bit farther. The Nobel people surely felt like giving the finger to the eggheads of the world that take literature too seriously. Why not — it is their privilege, they are also entitled to have a good time. But it makes things look messy. Songs, whether art songs (Lieder), love songs by troubadours and bards, or folk songs (work songs, lullabies, etc.) are normally classified under music, not literature. Surely, literature as we know it developed upon the scion of oral literature as sung by the ancient Greek aiodos and rhapsodos, and their native African, American and Asian colleagues. However, it is quite a stretch to include pop song lyrics among the likes of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Odyssey, Mahabharata and other classic epic poems. One suggestion: if you want to know more about Dylan's work and your first spontaneous thought is to buy the paperback edition of his text, then he is likely a literature artist. But if your first idea is to buy the disc or download his songs to your music device, then no, it is not literature that we are dealing with, and the Nobel committee have just made a practical joke at our expenses.

With the benefit of hindsight, the work of several prize winners seems rather trivial and bound to fade into oblivion. The acid test is to browse the list and ask yourself how many names you recognize, let alone how many made a lasting impression on you. On the other hand, influential artists such as Beckett, Joyce, Proust, Céline, Orwell, Pessoa, Borges, Musil, Ngugi, Yasar Kemal, or Abdel Rahman Munif, not to mention other literary creators less known in western circles because they worked in languages unfamiliar to most western readers in general, and to Nobel lobbyists in particular, were not deemed "deserving" enough to be honored. Such a combination of oversight, misjudgment, public opinion manipulation and sheer flattery, casts serious doubts on the motivations of the Nobel committee members.

[In the chart, former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia appear under respectively Russia, Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Double nationals are counted twice, once for each nationality.]

Nobel Prize for Literature

1901 - 2018

YearNameGenderCitizenshipSecond CitizenshipBornRemarks
2018Not Awarded
2017KazuoIshiguroMaleUnited Kingdom 1954 
2016BobDylanMaleUnited States 1941 
2015SvetlanaAlexievichFemaleUkraine 1948 
2014PatrickModianoMaleFrance 1945 
2013AliceMunroFemaleCanada 1931 
2012MoYanMaleChina 1955 
2011TomasTranströmerMaleSweden 1931 
2010MarioVargas LlosaMalePeru 1936 
2009Herta Müller FemaleGermany 1953 
2008Jean-Marie GustaveLe Clézio MaleFranceMauritius 1940 
2007DorisLessingFemaleUnited Kingdom 1919 
2006OrhanPamukMaleTurkey 1952 
2005HaroldPinterMaleUnited Kingdom 1930 
2004ElfriedeJelinekFemaleAustria 1946 
2003J.M.CoetzeeMaleSouth Africa 1940 
2002ImreKertészMaleHungary 1929 
2001V.S.NaipaulMaleUnited Kingdom 1932 
2000GaoXingjianMaleFrance 1940 
1999GünterGrassMaleGermany 1927 
1998JoséSaramagoMalePortugal 1922 
1997DarioFoMaleItaly 1926 
1996WislawaSzymborskaFemalePoland 1923 
1995SeamusHeaneyMaleIreland 1939 
1994KenzaburoOeMaleJapan 1935 
1993ToniMorrisonFemaleUnited States 1931 
1992DerekWalcottMaleSaint Lucia 1930 
1991NadineGordimerFemaleSouth Africa 1923 
1990OctavioPazMaleMexico 1914 
1989Camilo JoséCelaMaleSpain 1916 
1988NaguibMahfouzMaleEgypt 1911 
1987JosephBrodskyMaleUnited States 1940 
1986WoleSoyinkaMaleNigeria 1934 
1985ClaudeSimonMaleFrance 1913 
1984JaroslavSeifertMaleCzechoslovakia 1901 
1983WilliamGoldingMaleUnited Kingdom 1911 
1982Gabriel GarcíaMárquezMaleColombia 1928 
1981EliasCanettiMaleUnited Kingdom 1905 
1980CzeslawMiloszMalePolandUnited States1911 
1979OdysseusElytisMaleGreece 1911 
1978Isaac BashevisSingerMaleUnited States 1904 
1977VicenteAleixandreMaleSpain 1898 
1976SaulBellowMaleUnited States 1915 
1975EugenioMontaleMaleItaly 1896 
1974EyvindJohnsonMaleSweden 1900 
1974HarryMartinsonMaleSweden 1904 
1973PatrickWhiteMaleAustralia 1912 
1972HeinrichBöllMaleGermany 1917 
1971PabloNerudaMaleChile 1904 
1970AlexandrSolzhenitsynMaleSoviet Union 1918 
1969SamuelBeckettMaleIreland 1906 
1968YasunariKawabataMaleJapan 1899 
1967Miguel AngelAsturiasMaleGuatemala 1899 
1966SamuelAgnonMaleIsrael 1888 
1966NellySachsFemaleSweden 1891 
1965MikhailSholokhovMaleSoviet Union 1905 
1964Jean-PaulSartreMaleFrance 1905Declined the prize
1963GiorgosSeferisMaleGreece 1900 
1962JohnSteinbeckMaleUnited States 1902 
1961IvoAndricMaleYugoslavia 1892 
1960Saint-JohnPerseMaleFrance 1887 
1959SalvatoreQuasimodoMaleItaly 1901 
1958BorisPasternakMaleSoviet Union 1890Forced to decline
1957AlbertCamusMaleFrance 1913 
1956Juan RamónJiménezMaleSpain 1881 
1955HalldórLaxnessMaleIceland 1902 
1954ErnestHemingwayMaleUnited States 1899 
1953WinstonChurchillMaleUnited Kingdom 1874 
1952FrançoisMauriacMaleFrance 1885 
1951PärLagerkvistMaleSweden 1891 
1950BertrandRussellMaleUnited Kingdom 1872 
1949WilliamFaulknerMaleUnited States 1897 
1948T.S.EliotMaleUnited Kingdom 1888 
1947AndréGideMaleFrance 1869 
1946HermannHesseMaleSwitzerland 1877 
1945GabrielaMistralFemaleChile 1889 
1944Johannes V.JensenMaleDenmark 1873 
1939Frans EemilSillanpääMaleFinland 1888 
1938PearlBuckFemaleUnited States 1892 
1937RogerMartin du GardMaleFrance 1881 
1936EugeneO'NeillMaleUnited States 1888 
1934LuigiPirandelloMaleItaly 1867 
1933IvanBuninMaleStateless 1870Born Russian
1932JohnGalsworthyMaleUnited Kingdom 1867 
1931Erik AxelKarlfeldtMaleSweden 1864 
1930SinclairLewisMaleUnited States 1885 
1929ThomasMannMaleGermany 1875 
1928SigridUndsetFemaleNorway 1882 
1927HenriBergsonMaleFrance 1859 
1926GraziaDeleddaFemaleItaly 1871 
1925George BernardShawMaleUnited Kingdom 1856 
1924WladyslawReymontMalePoland 1867 
1923William ButlerYeatsMaleIreland 1865 
1922JacintoBenaventeMaleSpain 1866 
1921AnatoleFranceMaleFrance 1844 
1920KnutHamsunMaleNorway 1859 
1919CarlSpittelerMaleSwitzerland 1845 
1917KarlGjellerupMaleDenmark 1857 
1917HenrikPontoppidanMaleDenmark 1857 
1916Vernervon HeidenstamMaleSweden 1859 
1915RomainRollandMaleFrance 1866 
1913RabindranathTagoreMaleIndia 1861 
1912GerhartHauptmannMaleGermany 1862 
1911MauriceMaeterlinckMaleBelgium 1862 
1910PaulHeyseMaleGermany 1830 
1909SelmaLagerlöfFemaleSweden 1858 
1908RudolfEuckenMaleGermany 1846 
1907RudyardKiplingMaleUnited Kingdom 1865 
1906GiosuèCarducciMaleItaly 1835 
1905HenrykSienkiewiczMalePoland 1846 
1904JoséEchegarayMaleSpain 1832 
1904FrédéricMistralMaleFrance 1830 
1903BjørnstjerneBjørnsonMaleNorway 1832 
1902TheodorMommsenMaleGermany 1817 
1901SullyPrudhommeMaleFrance 1839 


Sources: Nobelprize