Five things to know about the No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prize

It was an­nounced re­cently that the prize won’t be awarded this year, fol­low­ing sex abuse al­le­ga­tions that have tar­nished the Swedish Academy’s pub­lic im­age. Here’s all you should know about the most pres­ti­gious hon­our in the field of lit­er­a­ture

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The Swedish Academy, which awards the No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prize, has been in tur­moil ever since an in­flu­en­tial cul­tural fig­ure — the hus­band of one of its 18 mem­bers — was ac­cused of sex crimes dur­ing #MeToo cam­paign in 2017. Now, the in­sti­tu­tion is post­pon­ing this year’s prize due to re­duced pub­lic con­fi­dence in the academy af­ter mem­bers re­signed over the scan­dal. Here are five things to know about the No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prize.


Each year, the Swedish Academy awards 16 prizes, the most pres­ti­gious be­ing the No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prize. Since 1901, four or five of the Academy’s 18 mem­bers have been elected to serve on its No­bel Com­mit­tee for a three-year term, des­ig­nated to sort through the nom­i­na­tions and pro­vide the Academy with a short­list of pos­si­ble win­ners. The nom­i­nees’ bod­ies of work are stud­ied by the Academy. The mem­bers hold a vote in Oc­to­ber to choose the win­ner — the lau­re­ate must ob­tain more than half of the votes cast.


Each year, around 350 nom­i­na­tions are sub­mit­ted by those el­i­gi­ble to do so: for­mer No­bel lit­er­a­ture lau­re­ates, mem­bers of other coun­tries’ equiv­a­lent academies, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sors, and the heads of na­tional writ­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions. Each one vaunts the tal­ents of their can­di­date. To qual­ify, nom­i­nees must still be alive, and, ac­cord­ing to the rules laid out by Al­fred No­bel, must have pub­lished a piece of work within the past year, though the Academy has oc­ca­sion­ally strayed from that re­quire­ment.


A to­tal of 114 peo­ple have won the No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prize. The prize has been awarded on 110 oc­ca­sions, with two peo­ple shar­ing the prize on four oc­ca­sions. It has also been de­clined twice: In 1958 Rus­sian au­thor Boris Paster­nak ac­cepted the prize but was later forced by Soviet au­thor­i­ties to de­cline it, and in 1964, French philoso­pher Jean-Paul Sartre turned it down.

The in­sti­tu­tion, founded in 1786, has on seven pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions cho­sen to re­serve the prize: in 1915, 1919, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1936 and 1949. On five of those oc­ca­sions, the prize was de­layed then awarded at the same time as the fol­low­ing year’s prize. The most re­cent such case was when Wil­liam Faulkner was awarded the 1949 prize in 1950, the same year Ber­trand Rus­sell was hon­oured.


France takes the gold medal for the most No­bel Lit­er­a­ture Prizes with 15 lau­re­ates, in­clud­ing the first one ever awarded, to Sully Prud­homme in 1901.

Tied in se­cond place are the United States and Bri­tain with 12 lau­re­ates each, in­clud­ing last year’s win­ner, Ja­panese-born Bri­tish au­thor Kazuo Ishig­uro, au­thor of Re­mains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.


In the name of the “in­de­pen­dence of lit­er­a­ture”, the Swedish Academy re­fused to con­demn a 1989 fatwa against Bri­tish In­dian au­thor Sal­man Rushdie fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Academy mem­bers were di­vided about whether to stand as neu­tral guar­an­tors of the arts, or as sup­port­ers of their fel­low au­thor.

Three mem­bers an­gered by the Academy’s cho­sen path of si­lence left their seats, though tech­ni­cally they were ap­pointed for life and could not re­sign. It was not un­til 27 years later — in 2016 — that the Academy fi­nally con­demned the fatwa against Rushdie.


Nov­el­ist Sal­man Rushdie; (right) Rabindranath Tagore won The No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1913

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