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Nobel Literature Prize: Controversy, fame and flops

  • Published at 11:23 am October 3rd, 2017
Nobel Literature Prize: Controversy, fame and flops

Ahead of the announcement Thursday of this year's Nobel Literature Prize laureate, here is a look at some of the controversies down the years since the prestigious title was first awarded in 1901.


The 1964 laureate French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose political philosophy was partly based on the criticism of institutions, was the first writer to refuse the prize. He wrote that he "always declined official honours".

Other winners raised eyebrows because they were members of the Nobel Academy that chooses the laureates. They include the little-known Swedish joint-winners Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who in 1974 beat out Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov.

There was uproar in 1989, on the sidelines of the prize, when jurors resigned in fury that the Academy had not publicly backed British author Salman Rushdie, subject of a death sentence by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

Over the past 20 years two laureates have particularly divided opinion: Dario Fo, the Italian playwright and actor who was described as a "jester" by the Academy in 1997; and singer songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016 who was silent for weeks after he was announced as the winner and then snubbed a ceremony to receive the prize.

The famous, the forgotten

The Nobel Academy has recognised writers of repute like Americans William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954) and John Steinbeck (1962) and France's Andre Gide (1947) and Albert Camus (1957).

Other big-name winners are Rudyard Kipling (1907), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982).

However many prestigious names in literature have not been recognised with a Nobel such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Paul Valery, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

While some obvious candidates fell through the cracks, the Academy has been criticised for rewarding obscure writers who are not widely read outside their own countries: Iceland's Halldor Laxness (1955), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), Odysseus Elytis (1979) and Jaroslav Seifert (1984).

There have been 14 female laureates, only six between 1901 and 1990.

Western domination

From 1901 to 1985 only eight laureates were chosen from outside Europe and the United States.

India has only one laureate in Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, as does the Arab world with Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz receiving the award in 1988.

One reason may be that it was previously difficult for the Nobel juries to judge non-European literature as translations were rare and information less accessible before the Internet.

In 1986 Nigeria's Wole Soyinka became the first African to be recognised. The first Chinese author was Gao Xingjian in 2000 and in 2006 Orhan Pamuk became the first Turkish writer on the list.


The Nobel institution defends an "idealist" policy, according to the will of founder Alfred Nobel.

In this vein the Academy has often backed those in exile, dissidents, opposition leaders and authors who are banned from publishing in their own countries.

These include Guatemala's Miguel Angel Asturias in 1967 and Pablo Neruda from Chile in 1971.

And during the Cold War several choices were not made purely literary grounds such as Poland's Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Jaroslav Seifert of the former Czechoslovakia (1984).

Most famously, in 1970, Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was forced to decline the prize, fearing that he would not be able to return to his country should he travel to receive it. He finally accepted the award four years later.

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