05 December 2023

The Nobel Prize – including in literature – is awarded in December every year. The decision on who among all the writers in the world deserves to be awarded it is made by a small group of 18 people from Sweden. Researcher Jacob Habinek at Linköping University has analysed how the Nobel Prize became a world prize.

Olga Tokarczuk recieves the Nobel Prize in literature. Olga Tokarczuk recieves the Nobel Prize in literature. Alexander Mahmoud

“To the extent that the Nobel Prize seems self-evidently a kind of world prize today, getting that to work smoothly within the Swedish Academy took decades to achieve. You can even debate whether that was the intention in the first years,” says Jacob Habinek at the Institute for Analytical Sociology at Linköping University.

He has followed the path of the Nobel Prize in Literature from 1901 to 1966 by going through the archives of the Swedish Academy. Using statistical models, he has analysed which members of the Academy had the final say in the decisions. He has also gone through its minutes for details of the discussions. His results were recently published in the journal Poetics.

From local to transnational

The quantitative part of his research involved looking at where nominations were received from in each year and dividing them into three levels. The first level is transnational, showing how many countries have nominated any given candidate, not including their home country.

The second is national, showing whether the candidate was nominated by their home country. The third one, referred to by Jacob Habinek as local, shows whether a candidate Associate professor Jacob Habinek.Being controversial is not the worst thing for a prize, Jacob Habinek says. was nominated by a member of the Swedish Academy. He then compared this with who was eventually awarded the prize.

By dividing the years studied into three periods, he has mapped changes in the Swedish Academy’s weighting of the different levels.

Three periods

The first period, 1901 to 1919, is characterised by the Academy preferring candidates that have strong support from their own countries. Nominations from national academies in large European countries such as France and Germany carry particular weight. Based on his study of the minutes, Jacob Habinek takes this to mean that these countries shared the same, strictly conservative, view of what is good literature.

For every Nobel Prize awarded there are a hundred papers written about why this was a terrible decision.

In the next period, between the wars, the Swedish Academy is more divided. The conservative wing is there, but there are also new, younger, members with other ideals. Consensus is rare, and sometimes no decision can be taken. On top of this, fewer international nominations are received. This results in the personal opinions of individual members making a big impact.

WWII brings a major change. Under new leadership, the Swedish Academy changes its nomination rules. Apart from the members themselves, universities worldwide and international writers’ associations, such as the PEN club, can now nominate for the prize. This leads to a more varied group of candidates, both in terms of nationality and what they write. Winston Churchill, the Soviet author Boris Pasternak and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre are examples of this.

A controversial prize

Jacob Habinek draws the conclusion that the international nominations carry the most weight in the post-war period. In his view, only then did the Swedish Academy find a way to fuse the local, national and transnational perspectives.

This is also the key to how the Nobel Prize in Literature, despite often being questioned, can maintain status and relevance: by the Swedish Academy taking the rest of the world into account, but not too much. He believed that just following the recommendations received would risk making the prize irrelevant.

“For every Nobel Prize awarded there are a hundred papers written about why this was a terrible decision. But being controversial is not the worst thing for a prize, because it still means that people are attending to it and discussing it and debating: what are the criteria under which that decision may or may not make sense?” Jacob Habinek says.

This research was financed through the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.

Translation: Anneli Mosell

Article: How the Nobel became a world prize: Scalar mediation in the global literary field, J Habinek, Poetics, published online in October 2023, doi: doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2023.101822

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