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Nobel Prize for Literature - Augment Your Reading Program with International Content

Nobel Prize for Literature - Augment Your Reading Program with International Content

Published: 08/15/2011 by Katherine Ashley B.A. (Hons), MèsL, M.Phil, Ph.D. Freelance Writer

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Every October, the world’s attention turns to books when the Swedish Academy announces the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. And every December, journalists flock to Stockholm to attend the award ceremony and listen to the winner’s acceptance speech.

Scanning the list of Nobel laureates is like reading a who’s who of modern literature. The pantheon is full of familiar names – novelists, poets, playwrights, and essayists who crop up time and again on school and university reading lists. Few children are unacquainted with Rudyard Kipling and Pearl S. Buck, for example, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a perennial teenage favourite. Stories and poems by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and W.B. Yeats are the bread and butter of college English 101 courses. French literature courses would lose their raison d’être if it weren’t for books by André Gide, François Mauriac, and Albert Camus, just as Spanish lessons would be incomplete without the writings of Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Reading these authors through the lens of the Nobel Prize can offer new perspectives on books and expand a student’s horizons.

The Nobel Prize isn’t the only prominent literary award, so what makes it different from the others? What truly distinguishes it is that it’s open to all nationalities and languages. It originally favoured Scandinavian and European writers, and has honoured more English-speaking authors than any other group, but today the Nobel Prize flies the flag for world literature: its laureates have written in 25 different languages. What’s more, it’s thanks to winning the Nobel Prize that so many of these authors’ books are now readily available in English translation. 

Alfred Nobel’s openness to world literature was a bone of contention when his prize was created, but his internationalism has paid off. Indeed, the Prize is now synonymous with cosmopolitanism, and exposes us to authors, texts, genres, and cultures we might otherwise never encounter. How many had heard of José Saramago, Gao Xingjian, or Orhan Pamuk before they won Nobel Prizes? Could we have named a single Polish, Hungarian, or Austrian author before Czesław Miłosz, Imre Kertész, and Elfriede Jelinek became Nobel laureates? The ability of the Nobel Prize to expose readers of all ages to other cultures is highlighted by the fact that the International Baccalaureate Organization, which aims to educate “inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people” who will promote “intercultural understanding and respect,” includes books by over two dozen Nobel laureates on its list of Prescribed World Literature texts for high school students.

There is, of course, a difference between prescribing these books, and expecting adolescents to read and enjoy them. One obvious advantage of fiction targeted at specific age groups is that it has the power to draw in reluctant readers. Newbery Medallists, for example, deal with age-appropriate themes that resonate with children and pre-teens. Classics of adult literature, on the other hand, might have longevity, but are rarely pitched in such a way as to make them attractive to teenagers. This doesn’t mean that serious literature can’t appeal to them. In Classic Connections: Turning Teens on to Great Literature, young adult librarian Holly Koelling argues that literary classics are “of tantamount importance to us all, teens included” because they lead to an “expansion of knowledge, understanding, and experience.” The benefits derived from reading quality books like those that have won the Nobel Prize are quite different from those conferred by advances in medicine or peace, but they are no less important for that.

So what does the Nobel Prize for Literature actually represent? What is its history? Who is it awarded to, and why?

In 1896, Alfred Nobel, a multilingual poet-inventor, died a very rich man. In the absence of heirs, he left his fortune to the creation of the Nobel Foundation. Now in its 110th year, the Foundation administers annual prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Peace, and Literature. These prizes represent the highest levels of human achievement, and are chosen by a select few who have reached the top of their fields. Only previous winners, elite university professors, and members of the Swedish Academy and other national academies are eligible to nominate authors for the literature prize, and only about 200 nominations are received every year. However, the final decision rests with the Swedish Academy, which reports to the Nobel Foundation.

What does an author have to do to take home the prize? Several criteria must be met, and reading the individual award citations gives some indication of how these criteria have been interpreted over the years. Since the citations explain why the prize was awarded, they also provide a good entry point for studying Nobel authors with your child.

As with the awards for Peace, Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine, the Literature prize is designed for individuals who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in the year preceding the nomination. This implies that the prize is awarded on the basis of a single book. But this isn’t the case. In fact, the tendency to give the prize to a single book has fallen out of style, and it’s now more of a lifetime achievement award.

Nobel winners are expected to have produced “the most outstanding work” of literature in the year preceding the nomination. The problem is that books can be outstanding for many reasons: content, form, style, story, themes. Which of these is most important overall? The ambiguity of this criterion is complicated by the requirement that Nobel books should, according to Alfred Nobel’s will, be “in an ideal direction.” It’s not surprising that this is the most contentious criterion as no one knows what Nobel really meant when he wrote this. The nature of “ideal” is certainly worth discussing with your homeschooler. Does “ideal” mean that Nobel authors should uphold traditional values? The ideal family? The ideal society? Or does it mean that the books should be widely appealing? On the other hand, “ideal” could mean that Nobel authors need to have a positive outlook on life. But if this were the case, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett would have been disqualified from the get-go. Perhaps “ideal” should be interpreted in a strictly literary sense? Maybe Alfred Nobel sought to reward artistic innovation by authors striving for literary and linguistic perfection. But, if so, what would perfection entail in this scenario?

It may be that this criterion is designed to reward humanism and humanitarianism. Many Nobel Prize-winners have worked for the greater good, in one way or another. Winston Churchill isn’t the only literature laureate to have played an important political role, for example: W. B. Yeats was an Irish senator, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral were both consuls, and André Gide served as mayor of a small town in France. Writers like Sigrid Undset and Pearl S. Buck worked to improve children’s health and welfare, while Selma Lagerlöf campaigned in favour of women’s suffrage. Henri Bergson and Albert Camus held roles with UNESCO, Romain Rolland gave his prize money to the Red Cross, and George Bernard Shaw supported a great number of humanitarian causes. The question is, to what extent are these authors’ causes evident in their writings? And to what extent do personal and political values matter when assessing an author’s writing?

These are the types of questions that can provoke adolescents into engaging with literature in a meaningful way - and give them a head start when it comes to English 101! One thing is certain: if a student is ready to make the transition to adult literature, and is ready to be exposed to the world beyond North America, there are enough books by Nobel-winning authors to please just about all tastes - from detective novels and science fiction to tales of adventure, romance, and rebellion. They deal with universal themes, describe experiences from around the globe, and are sure to generate discussion.

Since the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded annually, the best source for up-to-date information is their website: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/. This invaluable resource includes a list of all laureates, excerpts from their prize citations, nomination reports, text and audio copies of acceptance speeches, videos of recent Nobel lectures, background information on Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Foundation, academic articles on the prize, as well as detailed information on how the prize is awarded.

The home page of the Nobel Prize website features an educational tab, which contains short documentaries, games (for younger readers), a teachers’ questionnaire in which you can tell the Nobel Foundation about your educational needs, as well as a link to the monthly Nobel newsletter. You can also follow nobelprize.org on Facebook, where the page is updated with videos, trivia questions, and information on website changes. A list of the Nobel Foundation’s publications can be found at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_organizations/nobelfoundation/publications/.

Books on the prize tend to become outdated fairly quickly, but they nonetheless contain some interesting perspectives. Try Micheal Worek’s Nobel: A Century of Prize Winners (2010) or Agneta Wallin Levinovitz and Nils Ringertz’s The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years (2001). Older works include Olga S. Opfell’s The Lady Laureates (1978) and Walter E. Kidd’s British Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize (1973). Amazon.com features a clickable list of Nobel-Prize winners in its “Book Awards” section.  As you can see there isn’t a shortage of resources relating to the Nobel Prize for Literature so just jump in and start reading some of the best literature the world has to offer! v


Several Nobel Prize-winning authors were homeschooled:

• Italian poet Grazia Deledda (1926)
• Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (1934)
• American novelist Pearl S. Buck (1938)
• Ukrainian prose fiction writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966)
• German poet and playwright Nelly Sachs (1966)

Normally associated with Serious Literature, Nobel Prize-winners have also written books that appeal to younger readers:

• Rudyard Kipling: Just So Stories and The Jungle Book
• Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth
• John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men and The Pearl
• Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
• Selma Lagerlöf: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils