On 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes, the Nobel Prizes. As described in Nobel’s will one part was dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Learn more about the Nobel Prize in Literature from 1901 to 2017.
Number of Nobel Prizes in Literature
110 Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded since 1901. It was not awarded on seven occasions: in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943.
Why were the Literature Prizes not awarded in those years? In the statutes of the Nobel Foundation it says: “If none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph, the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation’s restricted funds.” During World War I and II, fewer Nobel Prizes were awarded.
Shared Nobel Prizes in Literature
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been shared between two individuals on four occasions only. Sharing the Nobel Prize is a more common phenomenon within the other Nobel Prize categories.
1904 – Frédéric Mistral, José Echegaray
1917 – Karl Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan
1966 – Shmuel Agnon, Nelly Sachs
1974 – Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson
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.
(Answer from Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, June 2009-May 2015)
Read more on the subject shared Literature Prizes:
The Nobel Prize in Literature: Nominations and Reports 1901–1950
Number of Nobel Laureates in Literature
114 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1901-2017.
List of all Nobel Literature Laureates
The average age of all Literature Laureates* between 1901 and 2017 is 65 years.
All Nobel Laureates listed by age
Youngest Literature Laureate
To date, the youngest Literature Laureate is Rudyard Kipling, best known for The Jungle Book, who was 41 years old when he was awarded the Literature Prize in 1907.
Oldest Literature Laureate
The oldest Nobel Laureate in Literature to date is Doris Lessing, who was 88 years old when she was awarded the Prize in 2007.
Female Nobel Laureates in Literature
14 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was the first woman to be awarded in 1909. Selma Lagerlöf was awarded five years before she was elected to the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize awarding institution responsible for selecting Nobel Laureates in Literature.
1909 – Selma Lagerlöf
1926 – Grazia Deledda
1928 – Sigrid Undset
1938 – Pearl Buck
1945 – Gabriela Mistral
1966 – Nelly Sachs
1991 – Nadine Gordimer
1993 – Toni Morrison
1996 – Wislawa Szymborska
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2007 – Doris Lessing
2009 – Herta Müller
2013 – Alice Munro
2015 – Svetlana Alexievich
List of all female Nobel Laureates
Two People have declined the Nobel Prize in Literature
Boris Pasternak, the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, “Accepted first, later caused by the authorities of his country (Soviet Union) to decline the Prize”.
Jean Paul Sartre, the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, declined the prize because he had consistently declined all official honours.
Multiple Nobel Laureates in Literature
No one has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature more than once.
Multiple Nobel Laureates in other Nobel Prize categories
Posthumous Nobel Prizes in Literature
In 1931, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded posthumously to Erik Axel Karlfeldt. From 1974, the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Dag Hammarskjöld was also awarded a posthumous prize, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.
Awarded members of the Swedish Academy
One particular problem faced during the nomination and selection process for the Nobel Prize in Literature is how to deal with candidates who are members of the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize awarding institution responsible for selecting Nobel Laureates in Literature. All six Swedish Nobel Laureates in Literature were members of the Swedish Academy. In virtually every case it appears that they have declined nomination and a routine has been established, were they are not subjected to the appraisal of either an expert or the Nobel Committee for Literature.
Read more about the process of nomination and selection of Literature Laureates
Selma Lagerlöf became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1914 after she was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize in Literature
Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel Prize in Literature), was a member of the Swedish Academy 1912-1940.
Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931 Nobel Prize in Literature), was a member of the Swedish Academy 1904-1931. Karlfeldt was awarded posthumously.
Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel Prize in Literature), was a member of the Swedish Academy 1940-1974.
Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson (1974 Nobel Prize in Literature), were members of the Swedish Academy – Martinson 1949-1978 and Johnson 1957-1976.
Literature Laureates and languages
Alfred Nobel had an international horizon in his will, though it rejected any consideration for the nationality of the candidates: the most worthy should be chosen, “whether he be Scandinavian or not”. The problem of surveying the literature of the whole world was, however, overwhelming and for a long time the Swedish Academy – who selects the Nobel Laureates – was, with justice, to be criticized for making the award a European affair. In 1984, however, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy declared that attention to non-European writers was gradually increasing in the Academy; attempts were being made “to achieve a global distribution”.
|The 114 Nobel Laureates in Literature from 1901 to 2017 have been writing/writes in the following languages:|
Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Prize in Literature 1913) wrote in Bengali and English, Samuel Beckett (Nobel Prize in Literature 1969) wrote in French and English and Joseph Brodsky (Nobel Prize in Literature 1987) wrote poetry in Russian and prose in English. These three Nobel Laureates have been sorted under Bengali, French and Russian, respectively.
Literature Laureates with pen-names
Sully Prudhomme (pen-name of René François Armand Prudhomme), Anatole France (pen-name of Jacques Anatole Thibault), Wladyslaw Reymont (pen-name of Rejment), Grazia Deledda (pen-name of Grazia Madesani, née Deledda), Pearl Buck (pen-name of Pearl Walsh, née Sydenstricker), Gabriela Mistral (pen-name of Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga), Saint-John Perse (pen-name of Alexis Léger), Giorgos Seferis (pen-name of Giorgos Seferiadis), Pablo Neruda (pen-name of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto), Odysseus Elytis (pen-name of Odysseus Alepoudhelis), Mo Yan (pen-name of Guan Moye)
Surprise Literature Laureate?
Many believe that Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he was actually awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. Between 1945 and 1953, Winston Churchill got 21 nominations for the Literature Prize and two for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Explore the nomination database for the Nobel Prizes
Awarded for a particular literary work
While the Nobel Prize in Literature is for a writer’s life work, there are nine Literature Laureates for whom the Swedish Academy singled out a specific work for particular recognition.
|Mikhail Sholokhov in 1965
“for the artistic power and integrity with which, in his epic of the Don, he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people”
|Ernest Hemingway in 1954
“for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”
|Roger Martin Du Gard in 1937
“for the artistic power and truth with which he has depicted human conflict as well as some fundamental aspects of contemporary life in his novel-cycle Les Thibault”
|John Galsworthy in 1932
“for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga”
|Thomas Mann in 1929
“principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature”
|Wladyslaw Reymont in 1924
“for his great national epic, The Peasants”
|Knut Hamsun in 1920
“for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil”
|Carl Spitteler in 1919
“in special appreciation of his epic, Olympian Spring”
|Theodor Mommsen in 1902
“the greatest living master of the art of historical writing, with special reference to his monumental work, A history of Rome”
Nominations – a well kept secret
The nominations and the opinions written by the members of the Nobel Committee in Literature each year are kept secret for 50 years.
Sully Prudhomme, Rudolf Eucken, Paul Heyse, Rabindranath Tagore, Sinclair Lewis, Theodor Mommsen, Luigi Pirandello, Pearl Buck, Bertrand Russell and William Faulkner are some of the authors who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature after being nominated in one year only.
Number of nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature each year (1901-1950)
Searchable nomination database (1901-1965)
Who did the Nobel Laureates in Literature nominate?
The Swedish author August Strindberg (1849-1912) was nominated once in 1911 by Nathan Söderblom (but the nomination arrived too late and was retrieved).
The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was nominated for 12 years for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1929, the Nobel Committee for Medicine engaged an expert who came to the conclusion that a further investigation in Freud was not necessary, since Freud’s work was of no proven scientific value. What is less known, perhaps, is that Romain Rolland, Nobel Laureate in Literature 1915, and an acquaintance of Freud, nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.
List of nominations made by Nobel Laureates in Literature
The Nobel medal for Literature
The Nobel medal for Literature was designed by Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg and represents a young man sitting under a laurel tree who, enchanted, listens to and writes down the song of the Muse.
Read more about the Nobel medal for Literature
The Nobel diplomas
Each Nobel diploma is a unique work of art, created by foremost Swedish and Norwegian artists and calligraphers.
More about the Nobel diplomas
The Nobel Prize amount
Alfred Nobel left most of his estate, more than SEK 31 million (today approximately SEK 1,702 million) to be converted into a fund and invested in “safe securities.” The income from the investments was to be “distributed annually in the form of prizes to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
The Nobel Prize amount for 2019 is set at Swedish kronor (SEK) 9.0 million per full Nobel Prize.
More about the Nobel Prize amount
*Why are the individuals and organisations awarded a Nobel Prize called Nobel Laureates?
The word “Laureate” refers to being signified by the laurel wreath. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo is represented wearing a laurel wreath on his head. A laurel wreath is a circular crown made of branches and leaves of the bay laurel (in Latin: Laurus nobilis). In Ancient Greece, laurel wreaths were awarded to victors as a sign of honour – both in athletic competitions and in poetic meets.
Links to more facts on the Nobel Prizes:
Facts on the Nobel Prize in Physics
Facts on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Facts on the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Facts on the Nobel Prize in Literature
Facts on the Nobel Peace Prize
Facts on the Prize in Economic Sciences
Facts on all Nobel Prizes
First published 5 October 2009.