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The Nobel Prize for Literature: prizes, protests, and prestige

More often than not, the biggest literary awards have been shrouded in controversy. The Nobel Prize for Literature is no exception.

Established by Alfred Nobel’s will of 1895, the Nobel Prizes are awarded in five categories (Literature, Peace, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Economics) for “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to Mankind.”

In the case of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it has been awarded since its inception by the Swedish Academy — a Royal Academy of Sweden that is comprised of 18 members, who are of the highest literary authority in the country and are elected for life.

Abdulrazak Gurnah nobel prize for literature
Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Photo: 2006 Leonardo Cendamo via Getty Images)

Many of the criticisms concerning the literature award have surrounded “snubs.” The earliest involved Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace) whose exclusion from the inaugural nominee list in 1901 caused outrage amongst the literary community, to the extent that proclamation of support, signed by 42 established Swedish writers of the era, was sent to him. Following this, Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel for four consecutive years from 1902-1906, yet never won.

In the same vein, the exclusion of writers in the early twentieth century like James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, and Marcel Proust, amongst others, has been examined by critics as a result of their rigid boundaries when defining the field of literature.

Politics, history and the Nobel

However, one of the most critical perspectives on the Nobel Prize for Literature exclusions has been the clash between the Academy’s and the writers’ personal beliefs. Famously, Jean Paul-Satre declined his win in 1964, citing the fear of being limited and institutionalised by the Academy.

Recently, the revelation that Pablo Neruda almost lost the 1971 prize due to “communist tendencies” raised the question of historical biases in the Academy. Looking back, the debates surrounding writers like Samuel Beckett, EM Forster, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ezra Pound, whose eligibilities were actively questioned as a result of their political beliefs, highlights the philosophical divide in the literary community: can we ever truly seperate the writer from the work?

Literature in the 21st Century

One of the more recent controversies was Bob Dylan’s 2016 win as a lyricist for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While he was the first American to do so since Toni Morrison in 1993, Bob Dylan was also the first songwriter to clinch the prize. The award divided the literary community, with many celebrating the expansion of the Academy’s definition of literature, and others debating Dylan’s literary merit.

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård said of the 2016 prize: “I’m very divided. I love that the Nobel committee opens up for other kinds of literature – lyrics and so on. I think that’s brilliant. But knowing that Dylan is the same generation as Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, makes it very difficult for me to accept it.”

The prestige associated with the Nobel Prize for Literature is almost unparalleled, as is its fame for both its snubs and wins, in equal measure. Nevertheless, the debates that surround the prize seem to stay on-brand to the profession — after all, what is literature without its criticism?