We spoke to Ellen Mattson, who helps to decide the Nobel Prize in Literature, about how the prize process works. Discover more by reading our interview with her below.
Can you tell us who you are?
My name is Ellen Mattson. I’m a writer. A novelist. I’m a member of the Swedish Academy and also of the Nobel Committee.
How can I be nominated for the literature prize?
There is a system for the nomination process. Otherwise it would be overwhelming. So we have people all over the world who are entitled to nominate. And these are scholars, critics, spokespersons for literary organisations, other academies. Previous laureates can nominate and of course the members of the Swedish Academy. So we get a lot of names from all over the world.
Can anybody be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Theoretically anyone can be nominated. Anyone who writes excellent, outstanding literature. There is no other demand, just quality in the work.
What criteria do you use to choose Nobel Prize laureates?
It’s all about quality. Literary quality, of course. The winner needs to be someone who writes excellent literature, someone who you feel when you read that there’s some kind of a power, a development that lasts through books, all of their books. But the world is full of very good, excellent writers, and you need something more to be a laureate. It’s very difficult to explain what that is. It’s something you’re born with, I think. The romantics would call it a divine spark. For me, it’s a voice that I hear in the writing that I find within this particular writer’s work and nowhere else. It’s very difficult to explain what it is, but I always know when I find it. It’s something you’re born with. A talent that gives that extra dimension to that particular writer’s work.
Is there a minimum age in order to be eligible for the prize?
There is no age limit, but it takes quite a lot of time to be a good writer. Sometimes it takes your whole life to be a really good, excellent writer. So it follows that most laureates are not young. I would say most writers are my age, maybe a little younger and often a little older. It is possible to find a laureate that is perhaps 30 or 40, but it’s highly unlikely because, you need time to develop. It’s a lifetime process to reach that level of excellence.
Does a person’s personality affect your decision when awarding a Nobel Prize?
No, absolutely not. If you don’t mean the kind of personality that shows itself in the work. We never look at a person’s personal life. That is totally irrelevant. What we look for is always just excellent literature. It’s literary merit. That’s the only thing that counts.
How does the nomination process work? Do you have a shortlist?
It’s a series of lists. We start with a very long list of [around] 220 names – these are the names that come from all over the world. Then we have to navigate through this enormous mass of names and there we need the help of experts from different parts of the world.
Eventually we reach a list of about 20 names we want to try for this year’s prize and these we work with very thoroughly until we are able to choose five names that enter into the shortlist. These five candidates – that’s where the real work starts for us in the committee and for the whole academy. The committee read everything by these five writers – reading, thinking about what you’re reading, evaluating and explaining very clearly how you think about them.
Then the job starts where we have to work ourselves towards one candidate. And this will happen through discussions but also by voting.
What is your favourite part about your role with the Nobel Prize?
My favourite thing is that I get a chance to read all these wonderful writers and to read in depth and so extensively. I’ve worked with many committees and juries for literature, and usually you read a couple of books or perhaps just the latest book, but here we read all the books by all the candidates. And maybe you read them several times to really get to know the candidates.
Sometimes that means having to work with yourself to overcome some kind of resistance. Maybe you feel that you don’t understand this writer. Perhaps you don’t even like this writer, but my job is to broaden my mind and try to read until I reach a point where I understand this particular writer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very enjoyable work. I feel also that it’s a very good thing for my brain to overcome resistance. Sometimes you get a little lazy as you grow older. You like to read your favourite writers and you sort of stick with them, but here I’m constantly challenged by new authors. That is a great joy. And of course, I also like the process of discussing these writers with my fellow readers in the committee and in the academy as a whole.
How do the laureates find out?
It’s a very simple thing. When we decide and the decision is made, the permanent secretary goes out to make a phone call. So then the telephoning starts and sometimes I think it’s a little bit difficult to track down the laureate and maybe it’s not the right time of day or night for that person in whatever part of the world we’re talking about, but it’s by telephone.
How can I be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature?
You can win a Nobel Prize if you spend your life reading, writing, wonderful literature and really dedicate your life to writing and become a really, really good writer. But you also have to have this particular talent and that is something – you can develop it, but you cannot create it within yourself if you’re not born with it, I’m quite certain on this. So it’s a combination of hard work and talent, but the hard work part is not unimportant. It takes a lot of work and dedication to be a really, really good writer.
First published September 2021