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The Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the five awards established by the will of Swedish scientist and inventor Alfred Nobel, the others being for Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and Peace, and is perhaps the world's most prestigious literary award. The prize money has varied a great deal, but is currently equivalent to roughly £1m.

First awarded in 1901, it is awarded for a body of work, rather than just one book, and rewards an author who 'shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction'. The opaque nature of the Nobel Academy's deliberations has led to much speculation about how this is interpreted and accusations of political intent have often been made. Selected academics and distinguished writers are given the opportunity to nominate candidates and reports on each (the names are never revealed) are presented to the relevant Academy institution, who vote on a winner at some point in November.

Their decision is announced immediately it is made and, in 2007, this led to a shock for Doris Lessing: the Nobel administrators had been unable to contact her on the day since she was out shopping and she only found out that she had won when she returned home to find a crowd of reporters on her doorstep.

The award was made posthmously to Swedish symbolist poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931. No other writer has been honoured after death and in 1974 the rules were changed so that the award could only be made to a living writer.

The award ceremony is held in Stockholm, with the winner's Medal presented by the King of Sweden; the winner's Nobel Lecture is keenly awaited, not least because the content is often quite political and, consequently, controversial. In 2005, for example, Harold Pinter's Lecture, which was pre-recorded due to his ill health at the time, featured scathing attacks on George W Bush, Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.

With the global scope of the Prize, there has been regular controversy about the eventual choices. As with the other Nobel Prizes, many critics and even some members of the Academy, feel that the Prize is too Eurocentric, with over three-quarters of the winners coming from Europe. The first non-European was India's Rabindranath Tagore in 1913. France has more winners than any other nation, with 15 so far. There have been ten British Laureates: Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, T S Eliot, Winston Churchill , Elias Canetti, William Golding, V S Naipaul, Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing.

Some winners have been criticised as too obscure for such a prestigious award, but others have been criticised as too populist. Certain major names crop up each year as likely candidates and, when they fail to win, it is often suggested that there may be political reasons for their being overlooked, particularly in recent years. The failure of either Jose Luis Borges or Vladimir Nabokov to win is often put down to such issues and the Academy was publicly divided by the candidature of Salman Rushdie in 1989, the year of the fatwa issued against him. Philip Roth and Chinua Achebe are often currently cited as deserving writers who have so far been overlooked.

In 1964 John-Paul Sartre declined the award, saying that he no author should be seen as an 'institution', although he is still considered a Nobel Laureate. In 1958, Boris Pasternak felt unable to leave the Soviet Union to accept the award, fearing exile or reprisals from the authorities on his return; the Prize was eventually accepted by his son in 1989. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had the same fears in 1970 and only accepted the award when he was deported four years later.

The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, 'who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary', according to the Nobel Committee. Reaction to the win was mixed, with some commentators suggesting that a political desire to connect more with China had motivated the decision.

The 2015 winner was announced on 8th October, with Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich taking the award.


Previous Winners

Year Winner Country of Citizenship Language of Writing
2014 Patrick Modiano France French
2013 Alice Munro Canada English
2012 Mo Yan China Chinese
2011 Tomas Tranströmer Sweden Swedish
2010 Mario Vargas Llosa Peru Spanish
2009 Herta Müller Germany German
2008 Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio France/Mauritius French
2007 Doris Lessing United Kingdom English
2006 Orhan Pamuk Turkey Turkish
2005 Harold Pinter United Kingdom English
2004 Elfriede Jelinek Austria German
2003 John Maxwell Coetzee South Africa English
2002 Imre Kertész Hungary Hungarian
2001 Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul United Kingdom English
2000 Gao Xingjian France Chinese
1999 Günter Grass Germany German
1998 José Saramago Portugal Portuguese
1997 Dario Fo Italy Italian
1996 Wislawa Szymborksa Poland Polish
1995 Seamus Heaney Ireland English
1994 Oe Kenzaburo Japan Japanese
1993 Toni Morrison United States English
1992 Derek Walcott St Lucia English
1991 Nadine Gordimer South Africa English
1990 Octavio Paz Mexico Spanish
1989 Camilo José Cela Spain Spanish
1988 Naguib Mahfouz Egypt Arabic
1987 Joseph Brodsky United States English & Russian
1986 Wole Soyinka Nigeria English
1985 Claude Simon France French
1984 Jaroslav Seifert Czechoslovakia Czech
1983 William Golding United Kingdom English
1982 Gabriel García Márquez Colombia Spanish
1981 Elias Canetti United Kingdom German
1980 Czeslaw Milosz Poland & United States Polish
1979 Odysseas Elytis Greece Greek
1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer United States Yiddish
1977 Vicente Aleixandre Spain Spanish
1976 Saul Bellow United States English
1975 Eugenio Montale Italy Italian
1974 Harry Martinson AND Eyvind Johnson Sweden (both) Swedish (both)
1973 Patrick White Australia English
1972 Heinrich Böll West Germany German
1971 Pablo Neruda Chile Spanish
1970 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Soviet Union Russian
1969 Samuel Beckett Ireland English & French
1968 Kawabata Yasunari Japan Japanese
1967 Miguel Ángel Asturias Guatemala Spanish
1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon AND Nelly Sachs Israel Sweden Hebrew German
1965 Mikhail Sholokov Soviet Union Russia
1964 John-Paul Sartre France French
1963 Giorgos Seferis Greece Greek
1962 John Steinbeck United States English
1961 Ivo Andric Yugoslavia Serbo-Croatian
1960 Saint-John Perse France French
1959 Salvatore Quasimodo Italy Italian
1958 Boris Pasternak Soviet Union Russian
1957 Albert Camus France French
1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Spain Spanish
1955 Halldór Laxness Iceland Icelandic
1954 Ernest Hemingway United States English
1953 Winston Churchill United Kingdom English
1952 François Mauriac France French
1951 Pär Lagerkvist Sweden Swedish
1950 Bertrand Russell United Kingdom English
1949 William Faulkner United States English
1948 T S Eliot United Kingdom English
1947 André Gide France French
1946 Hermann Hesse Switzerland German
1945 Gabriela Mistral Chile Spanish
1944 Johannes Vilhelm Jensen Denmark Danish
1940-1943 NO AWARD    
1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää Finland Finnish
1938 Pearl Buck United States English
1937 Roger Martin du Gard France French
1936 Eugene O'Neill United States English
1935 NO AWARD    
1934 Luigi Pirandello Italy Italian
1933 Ivan Bunin Russia & France Russian
1932 John Galsworthy United Kingdom English
1931 Erik Axel Karlfeldt Sweden Swedish
1930 Sinclair Lewis United States English
1929 Thomas Mann Germany German
1928 Sigrid Undset Norway Norwegian
1927 Henri Bergson France French
1926 Grazia Deledda Italy Italian
1925 George Bernard Shaw United Kingdom English
1924 Wladyslaw Reymont Poland Polish
1923 William Butler Yeats Ireland English
1922 Jacinto Benavente Spain Spanish
1921 Anatole France France French
1920 Knut Hamsen Norway Norwegian
1919 Carl Spitteler Switzerland German
1918 NO AWARD    
1917 Karl Adolph Gjellerup AND Henrik Pontoppidan Denmark (both) Danish
1916 Verner von Heidenstam Sweden Swedish
1915 Romain Rolland France French
1914 NO AWARD    
1913 Rabindranath Tagore India Bengali
1912 Gerhart Hauptmann Germany German
1911 Maurice Maeterlinck Belgium French
1910 Paul von Heyse Germany German
1909 Selma Lagerlöf Sweden Swedish
1908 Rudolf Christoph Rucken Germany German
1907 Rudyard Kipling United Kingdom English
1906 Giosuè Carducci Italy Italian
1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz Poland Polish
1904 José Echegaray Spain Spanish
1903 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Norway Norwegian
1902 Theodor Mommsen Germany German
1901 Sully Prudhomme France French
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