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The Nobel Prize in Literature

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Award Profile:

First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prize is one of the best-publicized and most highly-regarded honors in contemporary literature. The prize is named after Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), a Swedish industrialist, chemist, explosives specialist. He was also an avid (yet unpublished) creative writer. Nobel established a series of awards for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Each year, after weighing nominees from a variety of cultures and countries, the Swedish Academy bestows the Nobel Prize in Literature upon a new author. The value of the award is currently set at 8 million Swedish crowns (or $1.12 million), a 20% decrease from previous years.

Although the Nobel is most often given in recognition of a writer’s general accomplishments, a few authors have been granted the Nobel largely on the basis of a single book. In 1920, the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun garnered the award in recognition of “his monumental work, Growth of the Soil.” German novelist Thomas Mann was singled out “principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has steadily increased in recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature.”

Notable Nobel Prize Winners:

The list of Nobel recipients includes some of the most influential novelists, poets, essayists, and philosophers of the 20th-century. Henri Bergson, Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Gabriel García Márquez, and Günter Grass are a few of the best-known Nobel laureates who wrote in languages other than English. However, the roster of great authors who were eligible for the Nobel, but never took home the award, may be just as impressive. Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges are a few of the groundbreaking modernist and post-modernist authors who belong to this second grouping.

In recent years, the Nobel committee has been accused of a different oversight—this time, an oversight regarding American authors. Writers from the United States such as Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway won Nobel Prizes in the middle decades of the 20th century. Yet no American author has won the award since 1993, when African-American novelist Tony Morrison received the Nobel. In 2008, Nobel official Horace Engdahl seemed to confirm this bias. Declaring Europe to be “the centre of the literary world,” Engdahl characterized contemporary American authors as too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining.”

Some of the American authors who are frequently pointed to as deserving, unjustly slighted Nobel nominees are Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, and (perhaps most frequently) Philip Roth. Yet it should be noted that some of these authors (Oates and Roth in particular) have reputations for producing large amounts of uneven or unremarkable work. It should also be noted that the Nobel has recently gone to several non-U.S. but still English-language writers, most recently to Doris Lessing in 2007.

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