Nobel Prize Literature

By Jørgen Sneis

Pretend for a moment that there had never been such a thing as the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now imagine coming across a list of all Nobel laureates, consisting of nothing but their names. What would you make of that list? What could these individuals possibly have in common? It might just occur to you as a game of Odd One Out. It’s a list of authors, sure, some of them well known to us, some of them not. But what about such names as Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Theodor Mommsen?

After more than 120 years of awards, it’s hard to imagine a world without the Nobel. The question remains, though. Are the laureates mentioned above just examples of “apples winning prizes for orangeness”?[1] Following the 2016 announcement, the novelist Jodi Picoult wrote on Twitter: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”[2] This neatly sums up much of the discussion surrounding Dylan’s award. However, looking at the history of the prize, it is also worth noting that the Swedish Academy has in fact been highly reflective about its apples and oranges.

Comparing non-comparables: the case of Theodor Mommsen

The range of “Nobel Prize literature” (Nobelpris-litteratur)[3] was intensely debated among the members of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize Committee from the very beginning – and addressed in terms of comparability. In 1902, when the Nobel was awarded for the second time, the committee laid out the challenge in the very first paragraph of its report:

“If the difficulty of weighing the sometimes equal merits of literary creations has been great, it has of course been more difficult still to decide on the pre-eminence of great scholars and great literary writers over each other. These qualities are […] really incommensurable.”[4]

The juxtaposition of literary and non-literary writers had been an issue in the previous year as well, but without having much influence on the final decision: the main contenders for the prize were poets and novelists. Now, that situation had changed. Among the nominees were world-famous authors like Leo Tolstoy, Émile Zola, and Henrik Ibsen. The prize was eventually conferred on Theodor Mommsen, described in the official announcement as “the greatest living master of the art of historical writing”, with special reference to his “monumental work History of Rome”.[5]

It is interesting to observe how Mommsen’s award is justified in Nobel Prize Committee’s report. He is praised as an erudite and meticulous historian, diving deep into the political, economic, and juridical affairs of ancient Rome. But emphasis is placed on his qualities as a writer and his ability to paint vivid pictures of battles, for instance, and historical figures. All in all, the committee’s assessment of Mommsen couldn’t be more explicit: “He is perhaps, above all, an artist and his roman history is a gigantic work of art”.[6]

In the context of the award, this was not at all far-fetched. The statutes of the Nobel Foundation from 1900, which are referred to repeatedly in the 1902 report, state that “The term ‘literature’ shall comprise not only belles-lettres [skönlitterära arbeten] but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style [framställningssätt], possess literary value” (§ 2).[7] The Swedish word framställningssätt refers to the way something is presented. This is what swayed the academy members in the case of Mommsen. Based on the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, he was indeed considered “worthy of a great literary prize”.[8]

One may or may not agree with this, of course. But it is important to see that the (somewhat opaque) notion of form and style as carrying literary value is what offered a way out of the comparability conundrum outlined in the quotation above, rendering “other writings” such as the History of Rome comparable to “belles-lettres” after all. And this is also what ultimately allows the Swedish Academy to oscillate between two notions of literature: literature in a narrow sense, as an art form, typically meaning prose fiction, drama, or poetry, and literature broadly, meaning any text, even spoken or sung, which somehow possesses literary value.

Negotiating value

In the end, the occasional apple in the orange roll of honor may just be symptomatic of something else: the Nobel’s continuous oscillating between different regimes of value, both aesthetic and civic.[9] The Nobel Prize in Literature is not an award for artistic achievement alone, but, one might say, for literature sub specie humanitatis – in line with Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament, in which he stipulated that the prize be awarded “to those who […] have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.[10] This (no less opaque) utilitarian poetics of the prize has a notable implication. It allows the Swedish Academy to have it both ways and to evaluate any nominee who passes the bar for literary value according to other values as well. In 1902, for instance, Émile Zola was not directly compared and found inferior to Mommsen in terms of form and style. Rather, he was passed over for “the spiritless, often grossly cynical” nature of his naturalism.[11]

Incidentally, such fluctuating sets of value are also very much characteristic of the public reception of the Nobel, when the Swedish Academy’s decisions, in turn, are evaluated by journalists and other critics. There seems to exist something like a Nobel chiasmus: looking at prima facie non-literary laureates, we are concerned with literary value, but when artistic merit is undisputed, other values – moral, political, etc. – seem to gain importance.[12]

In scholarship on World Literature, the Nobel Prize has been prominently described as “the greatest proof of literary consecration, bordering on the definition of literary art itself”.[13] Though it seems like overestimating the impact of this award to assume that it somehow determines or polices the boundary between literary and non-literary writing, this is an interesting thought. In practice, the Nobel Prize has always considered what is now generally acknowledged in literary theory: that both fiction and diction, to use Gérard Genette’s formulation,[14] play into what we think of as literature. And even though art may sometimes simply exist for its own sake, the Nobel also points to literature as a form of cultural transmission, with the ability to both confirm and challenge our attitudes, values, and beliefs. Perhaps the slippery criteria for prize-worthiness are precisely what makes this award so fascinating. When we discuss Stockholm’s sins of commission and sins of omission, as we often do when we talk about the Nobel Prize, we are also talking about what great literature is supposed to be and what functions it is supposed to have.



[1] James F. English, “The Nobel Prize: The Dramaturgy of Consecration”. In The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge UP, 2021, pp. 299–312, quote p. 303.

[2] @Jodipicoult on Twitter, October 13, 2016. Also quoted by English, ibid.

[3] Nobelpriset i litteratur. Nomineringar och utlåtanden 1901–1950 [2 vols.], edited by Bo Svensén, Stockholm: Nordstedts, 2001, quote vol. 1, p. 21. In what follows, all translations from Swedish into English are mine.

[4] Ibid.: “Om svårigheten att afväga förtjänsterna i sins emellan stundom jämbördiga skönlitterära skapelser varit stor, så har det naturligtvis varit än svårare att bestämma öfver stora vetenskapsmäns och stora skalders företrädesrätt i förhållande till hvarandra. Dessa storheter äro […] egentligen inkommensurabla.”

[5] Ibid., p. 38: “nutidens störste lefvande mästare i den historiska framställningens konst, med särskildt fäst afseende å hans monumentala verk Römische Geschichte”.

[6] Ibid., p. 36: “Han är måhända framför allt konstnär, och hans romerska historia är ett gigantiskt konstverk.”


[8] Nobelpriset i litteratur, vol. 1, p. 37: “värdig ett stort litterärt pris”.

[9] For a brilliant discussion of the tensions between different regimes of value, see Günter Leypoldt, “Civil Sacred: The Nobel and the Laureate Position in Public Space” [forthcoming].


[11] Nobelpriset i litteratur, vol. 1, pp. 8, 24: “det andelösa, ofta groft cyniska i hans naturalism”.

[12] For a detailed analysis of recent awards, see Karl Ågerup, Critical Responses to the Nobel Prize in Literature: An Analysis of 22 Awards, 2000-2021, Lewiston (NY) and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2022.

[13] Pascal Casanova: The World Republic of Letters [1999], translated into English by M.B. DeBevoise, Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard UP, 2004, p. 147.

[14] Gérard Genette, Fiction et diction, Paris: Seuil, 1991.

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Jørgen Sneis (2022, 17. August). Nobel Prize Literature. SFB 1288-Blog "Praktiken des Vergleichens" Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von

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