15 Questions and Answers about the Nobel Prize in Literature

Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, answers frequently asked questions about the Nobel Prize in Literature.

How do you work to select a new Nobel Prize in Literature?
In February all the received nominations, usually a bit over 200, are reviewed. They are then processed by the Nobel Committee. The work is supported by the Academy’s own employees, but also outside experts are hired for translations, statements and the like.

First, we make a list of over 20 names. From this, we eventually make a short list of five names. The short list is discussed and approved by the Academy in its entirety in May. Then the members have the summer to learn about the five authors on the short list. When the Academy then meet again in mid-September, it is always the Nobel Prize that is the top priority. We usually have agreed to a decision in early October.
More about the nomination process
The Nobel Committee for Literature

Who selects the Nobel Laureates in Literature?
The Swedish Academy, in its entirety. The Academy has 18 members: writers, poets, literary scholars and others.
More about the Swedish Academy

Can you choose anyone for the Literature Prize? Musicians, scientists etc?
No. Should someone get a prize in literature, that person must of course have created literature.

How do you find authors worthy a Nobel Prize in Literature? The world is so big …
It is not difficult to find worthy candidates. There are many: the world is so big …. The hard part is to select who will get it.

Do you always agree in the Literature Prize decision? What happens if you do not agree? 
No. The prize is determined after long discussions and with a majority vote.

Can you mention a Literature Prize when you haven’t agreed?
No, the secrecy forbids it. But I can say so much that I’ve never experienced a prize where everyone was in full agreement. If so, it would be really strange.

Do you look at the nominee’s particular work/book or collection of works during the nominee’s lifetime?
The prize is always based on an overall assessment. It’s a life’s work that is rewarded, not individual books.

Do you contact the Nobel Laureate before the announcement is made public? Does the Swedish Academy have contact with the Nobel Laureates over the years?
We try to contact the person who received the award about half an hour before the decision is announced.

Why is the Literature Prize so seldom divided? The last time was in 1974.
It probably belongs to the nature of literature. The science prizes are often awarded jointly, as the achievement is jointly, or for doing things that are very close to each other.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1974

Which genre has been awarded most often? Why?
Novelists have received the most prizes. The reason may be that it is the most practiced literary genre.

What Nobel Prize in Literature has been most criticized?
I do not know that. The prize to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was very criticized at the time not in the least from the Soviet side, but also in Sweden.
The 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What Nobel Prize in Literature has been most popular?
I do not know that. And I wonder if there is anyone who has an idea about this. We do not see the prize as a popularity contest, but only care about finding worthy Laureates.

Can a Nobel Prize in Literature be revoked?
No. It says explicitly so in the statutes.
Statutes of the Nobel Foundation, §10

Why do you keep everything about the Literature Prizes secret for 50 years?
It says so in the statutes.

Do you foresee that there will be increase in awarding Nobel Laureates that write in other languages than English?
Yes. It is inevitable.


First published 23 September 2013