An obituary of Alfred Nobel published in error by a French newspaper while Nobel was still alive announced, “The merchant of death is dead.” The inventor of dynamite saw the notice and was deeply disturbed, not having comprehended how his life’s work of producing stable explosives was viewed as harmful to the survival of mankind. Not wanting to leave so terrible a legacy as the one who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before,” the extremely wealthy Nobel, in his will and testament, established a prize that would bestow an award to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
After Nobel’s will was made public and arrangements for bestowing the awards had been established, the Nobel Prize quickly achieved prestige. It is associated with high esteem and honor, and the men and women selected for the award garner both respect and repute. In fact, they are often seen as praiseworthy representatives of the human race. One of these prizes, as directed in Nobel’s will, is “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Since the establishment of the award in 1901, one-hundred and ten writers have been named winners, although one, Paul Sartré, declined the prize.
An award with such distinction puts an enormous responsibility on the judges to select a worthy winner. To this end, a rigorous process that begins with identifying persons who are qualified to nominate a writer for the Nobel Prize in literature is initiated. In September, the Nobel Committee for Literature sends between 600 and 700 letters to individuals deemed qualified to serve as nominators. About half of the forms sent are returned by February, and with some names put forward by more than one nominator, the total number of suggestions usually goes no higher than about 200. The Committee verifies whether each nomination is from an authentic nominator and then carefully studies which of the ones remaining will go forward. Many nominations are rejected early on for such reasons as the nomination was deemed to be political, or the written work may have benefited the sciences but did not possess the requisite qualities of a literary work.
By April, about 15 to 20 names are sent for preliminary consideration by The Swedish Academy, an organization founded by Swedish King Gustav III in 1786 for the purpose of “furthering the purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language.” The 18-member Academy has had the privilege of selecting laureates for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901. When it receives the initial list of nominees, it confers approval and returns the names to the Committee for further consideration. By May, that list will have been trimmed down to just five names.
The Academy then has the task of reading the works of the final candidates as well as reports from the Committee. If a work is written in a language that the members cannot understand and no translation exists, a translation may be ordered by the Academy. The members then discuss the merits of each candidate. In early October, the Nobel Laureate for Literature is chosen by a majority vote, and the result is then announced. The winning nominee receives his or her award in December, consisting of a gold medal, a diploma, and a sum of about 1.2 million dollars.
In the early years of the award, Nobel’s statement that the literary prize be awarded “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” was unclear to those who did the judging, and for a time, the word “ideal” was construed to mean “idealistic” or “visionary”. Hence, writers who were not proponents of the Romantic movement, but who, nevertheless, were considered some of the weightiest authors of their time, were not even considered for the prize. Fortunately, the understanding of “ideal” in Nobel’s statement has since been revised, with the result that authors who would not have even been taken into account are now winning the prize.
Do the winners of the literature prize have a commonality? Actually, an examination of their characteristics shows that there is, indeed, a trait they have in common. They are well-versed, even intensely passionate, about the work they do. Before being considered for nomination, writers have previously contributed much to their literary field, changing it and making it grow, not because of a desire for honor, but because of a deep love for their work. The most recent recipient, Canadian Alice Munro, is said to have revolutionized the short story. The Nobel Committee noted that her stories “feature depictions of everyday but decisive events” that are epiphanies and “illuminate the surrounding story”.
Not everyone, however, agrees with the choices made by the Nobel Committee, and controversies surrounding those who were or were not nominated for the literature prize have, on occasion, arisen. In fact, members of the Swedish Academy, newspaper critics and literary professors have, at times, lambasted final selections. These disagreements make clear the difficulty of selecting a winner that will satisfy a majority of those interested in the outcome.
For example, the awarding of Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian playwright and journalist, offended The Swedish Academy’s Knut Ahnlund so much that he resigned, calling her works “whining, unenjoyable public pornography”. Critics consider it inconceivable that writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Mark Twain have not been chosen. In 1974, the award was given to authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who were once Nobel judges. Their contemporaries, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, lost although Bellow would take the prize in 1976. Still, despite these controversies, year after year, the announcement of the winner is met with great expectation and excitement by lovers of literature.