Some Nobel Prize materials to consider

For our consideration of the Nobel prize, please read the excerpts from James English’s Economy of Prestige on Canvas and Amitav Ghosh’s autobiographical essay “The March of the Novel through History.” Please also read Gisèle Sapiro’s 2016 essay “The Metamorphosis of Modes of Consecration in the Literary Field.” Then consider the primary source materials and data linked below, from the very rich Nobel Prize website. Please browse this site ad libitum. Keep notes on two or three points of interest to raise in seminar, when we will spend some time looking together. To give us some points of reference in common, see:


I have combined some of the terms to produce more interpretable visualizations (code here; on 10/25/21 I updated these plots), though it is worth underlining that “non-fiction” is a recent term that would not have been available in this context (in any language) for most of the century. It presupposes a fiction-centric conception of literature which is quite different from the one operating in the earliest decades—or even as late as mid-century: Bertrand Russell? Winston freakin Churchill?

Early years

Interwar period: modernists and populists

Postwar: new norms?


It is tempting to suggest you proceed systematically up through the present, but this is too much. In summary, I note that the epoch of “global” ambition for the Prize really begins in the late 1960s and includes a series of geographic “firsts,” especially after 1980: Yasunari Kawabata, Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott. The tendency to award figures with global liberal political credentials—alongside a few avowed leftists like Gordimer and Pinter—also grows more marked in the post-Cold War era. It remains a tendency and not a rule.

Some recent prizes


The Swedish Academy nearly imploded over a sex and corruption scandal in 2018, which caused a number of members to resign or withdraw. I think this recent reputational crisis (not the first in the literature prize’s history, but probably the most severe) is of some sociological interest, but I think taking it up at length, with only journalistic accounts as evidence, will distract us from other questions closer to the focus of the course. Still, you’ll come across mentions of it.

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Leave a Reply