How Nobel Laureates in Literature are chosen

To be eligible for a Nobel Prize, a candidate must be nominated by a qualified person. Those entitled to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature are:
  • members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies similar to it in membership and aims;
  • professors of literary and linguistic disciplines at universities and university colleges;
  • former Nobel Laureates in Literature;
  • presidents of authors’ organisations which are representative of the literary activities of their respective countries.
Nominations made by persons not belonging to any of these categories will be disregarded. A person may not nominate himself or herself; that is, the Nobel Prize cannot be applied for.

Suggestions for prize winners are to reach the Nobel Committee before 1 February to be taken into account for the year’s prize. A nomination should be accompanied by a motivation, although this is not obligatory. Nominations are subject to complete secrecy.

In its work in choosing a Nobel Prize winner the Swedish Academy is assisted by a Nobel Committee comprising four to five Academy members, elected for three-year periods. The Committee’s task is to prepare discussions on candidates by registering, collecting and presenting nominations, to commission various studies, and finally for each of the committee members to issue a recommendation to the Academy in advance of the decision on a winner.

To stimulate nominations, the Nobel Committee usually sends letters each autumn to 600 to 700 addresses (both people and organisations) within the authorised groups, asking for nominations for next year’s prize.

About 350 suggestions arrive each year. The same names often occur in several nominating letters and the number of persons nominated is usually about 200. Since nominations have to be renewed every year to be valid, it often happens that the same names are put forward time after time, until the nominee either wins the prize or dies or the sponsors give up.

When a nomination arrives, the first task for the Committee is to assess whether it has come from an authorised source. If not, it is put to one side and ignored. The approved nominations are made into a list that is presented to the Academy in early February. When the Academy has approved the suggestion list, it goes back to the Nobel Committee.

Many of the names on the list are eliminated at an early stage. Reasons for this vary. Some of the nominees are scientific writers whose works did not meet the demand for literary value, others may be authors of belles-lettres but do not possess the necessary quality, while even others may have been nominated for reasons other than literary (political, ideological, nationalistic, etc.).

The candidates remaining after this gleaning are subjected to further study. If someone’s work is not familiar enough for the Academy, an expert assessment can be commissioned by the Nobel Committee. If a candidate writes in a language inaccessible for Academy members, and no adequate translations exist, special translations can be ordered.

The results of the Committee’s work are presented to the Academy in April, in the form of a preliminary list of candidates, generally comprising 15 to 20 names.

When the Academy has approved the preliminary list, it goes back to the Nobel Committee again, and at the end of May, the Committee delivers a definitive list of priority candidates. The list is of five names as a rule and the Academy is free to make changes and additions. The Academy’s last task for the spring term’s Nobel Prize work is to approve the definitive list of candidates.

During the summer, Academy members are to read from the production of the remaining five candidates - if they have not already done so: many of the more prominent names recur on the definitive list year after year, in which case it will suffice to see whether in the intervening period they have published work which either strengthens or weakens their case. Each Nobel Committee member has also to prepare an individual report to be presented to the Academy at the first meeting of the autumn term.

When the Academy reconvenes after the summer holidays, the members must have done their homework. The first meeting of the autumn is held in mid-September, and since the decision on the year’s winner is currently made in early or mid-October, there are only a few weeks to confer and reach a decision. For the choice of a prize winner to be valid, a candidate must receive more than half of the votes cast. 
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