Times when the Swedish Academy was criticized for its choice of the Nobel Prize in Literature Laureates

Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has suffered its fair share of controversies and debates surrounding the decisions made by the Swedish Academy in awarding the coveted prize.

The Academy has faced criticism for their choices, with some observers and literary critics arguing that certain laureates were undeserving of the accolade, either because their works were deemed of lesser literary merit or because other writers who were overlooked were considered more deserving.

Additionally, literature is a highly subjective field, and people’s tastes and preferences vary widely. Hence, it is inevitable that not every laureate will align with the tastes and preferences of every individual in the global literary community, leading to differing opinions on the merit of the laureates’ works.

The Nobel Prize is an internationally renowned award that recognizes individuals and organizations for exceptional achievements in various fields. It was established by the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor and philanthropist. Image: Front side of one of the Nobel Prize medals

Here are a few instances of when the Swedish Academy received a bit of stick for its choice of Nobel Prize in Literature laureates:

Bob Dylan (2016)

Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Dylan’s most acclaimed songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964), emerged in the 1960s.

The choice of renowned American musician Bob Dylan sparked a lot of debates about whether song lyrics could be equated to literature, and some believed that more traditional literary figures were overlooked.

Bob Dylan’s most acclaimed songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964), emerged in the 1960s. These tracks became symbols for the civil rights and antiwar efforts. During this era, Dylan’s lyrics were rich with political, social, philosophical, and literary inspirations, challenging traditional pop norms and resonating with the growing counterculture movement.

Peter Handke (2019)

In 2019, Peter Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”

Peter Handke’s win generated controversy due to his political stances and support for Slobodan Milošević, a former President of Serbia and Yugoslavia, who faced charges of war crimes and genocide.

Handke is an Austrian playwright, novelist, and poet born in 1942. He gained prominence in the 1960s with avant-garde plays like “Offending the Audience.” His works often explore themes of alienation, introspection, and existential despair. His controversial political stances have sparked debates.

J.M.G. Le Clézio (2008)

French writer and academician Le Clézio’s diverse literary contributions led him to win the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, hailed as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”

Some critics argued that French writer Le Clézio was a somewhat conventional choice compared to other contenders, considering his work was more of a mainstream nature, causing debates on the merit of his selection.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a prolific writer with over forty works to his credit, earned the 1963 Prix Renaudot for “Le Procès-Verbal.”

Dario Fo (1997)

Dario Fo received the Prize in 1997 because he was hailed as one “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”

The choice of Italian playwright Dario Fo was controversial, with some seeing him as a non-literary writer and criticizing his work for its perceived lack of depth and literary significance.

Winston Churchill (1953)

The selection of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill for the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature was contentious, as he was awarded for his historical writings and speeches rather than fictional literature. The British politician’s honor came “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”

Boris Pasternak (1958)

In 1958, as the Cold War raged, the Swedish Academy bestowed upon Russian novelist Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition”.

Russian novelist and poet Pasternak’s win was enveloped in Cold War politics, leading to intense criticism, particularly from the Soviet Union. He eventually had to decline the prize under pressure from Soviet authorities.

Harold Pinter (2005)

British poet Harold Pinter’s award in 2005 drew criticism as many viewed it as a political statement due to his outspoken criticism of U.S. and U.K. foreign policy, overshadowing the British playwright’s literary contributions. Pinter’s Nobel Prize was praised for a literary genius “who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”

Sully Prudhomme (1901)

The very first awarding of the prize to Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907) was controversial, as many believed that Leo Tolstoy was the more deserving candidate. The French poet and essayist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”

The French poet and essayist Prudhomme was the first person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His honor, which came in 1901, was “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”

Frequently Asked Questions about the Nobel Prize in Literature

The Swedish Academy is the institution tasked with selecting the winner for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Laureates are selected for outstanding contributions in the field of literature. Image: Logo of the Swedish Academy

The Nobel Prize in Literature have sparked conversations about the parameters defining literary merit and the role of political, ideological, and cultural considerations in the selection process. These controversies underscore the inherent subjectivity and nuanced perspectives in evaluating literary worthiness.

Below are some very important facts about the Nobel Prize in Literature:

Who awards the Nobel Prize in Literature?

The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy, based on the recommendations of the Nobel Committee for Literature.

The Swedish Academy, established in 1786 by King Gustav III, is a Royal Academy of Sweden, serving as the premier authority on the Swedish language.

How much in Alfred Nobel’s will did he set aside for the Nobel Prize?

In 1895, Swedish engineer and philanthropist Alfred Nobel (21 October 1833 – 10 December 1896) signed a will dedicating most of his vast estate to establish the Nobel Prizes. His aim was to honor outstanding contributions to humanity. His fortune, over SEK 31 million (now around SEK 1,794 million), was to be invested safely to fund these awards.

How is the laureate chosen?

The laureate is chosen through a majority vote by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy. The selection process is secretive, and the nominees are not disclosed until 50 years later.

Can the Prize be shared?

Yes, the prize can be divided between a maximum of three laureates who have produced work that is considered to possess equal literary merit.

Can the Prize be awarded posthumously?

Since 1974, the Prize cannot be awarded posthumously unless the laureate was chosen before their death.

What does the laureate receive?

The laureate receives a medal, a diploma, and a monetary award. The amount of the monetary award can vary each year. The Nobel Prize for 2023 is set at 11.0 million Swedish kronor (SEK) for each complete award. That figure is the neighborhood of $1 million.

Is the Prize awarded only to novelists?

No, the Prize is awarded to authors of any literature, including poetry, essays, and plays.

Can an author be awarded the Prize more than once?

No, an author cannot be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature more than once.

Has the Prize ever been declined?

Yes, Boris Pasternak initially accepted but later declined the Prize in 1958 due to pressure from the Soviet government. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Prize in 1964 on the grounds that he always refused official honors.

How can one nominate an author for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Nominations can only be made by persons who meet specific criteria, including members of the Swedish Academy, literature professors, and past laureates. The process is highly selective, and unsolicited nominations are not considered.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded annually in six categories: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economic Sciences.

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