How are the Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature decided?



For those involved in the work of nominating the Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, the year begins and ends in October, always on a Thursday and always at one p.m., although the week may vary. Most often, however, it will be the first Thursday in October, sometimes the second and, although rarely, sometimes the third. On the day, a large group of media representatives gathers at the old Stockholm Stock Exchange Building (Börshuset) in Stockholm to await the opening of the door to the Swedish Academy’s Permanent Secretary’s room. At exactly one p.m., the Secretary emerges to announce the Prize winner’s name.

While everyone’s attention at that moment is focused on the prize winner, the starting gun has gone for the search for the next year’s winner - although no one has heard the shot. From the moment of the announcement, nominations for next year’s prize can legitimately be submitted by those accredited to do so.


In November, thousands of letters are mailed across the world to a selection of people reminding them of their entitlement to submit nominations for the Nobel Prize. Four groups are authorised to nominate:

1) Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies with equivalent functions around the world.

2) Professors of literature and language subjects at universities and colleges.

3) Previous Nobel Prize laureates.

4) Chairpersons of writers’ organisations qualifying as representative of their countries’ production of literature and belles lettres.


The Nobel Foundation invites all the Nobel Prize laureates (except for the Peace Prize since that ceremony takes place in Oslo) to Stockholm to receive their medals and diplomas from the hands of His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf. The awards ceremony and the banquet are both held on 10 December, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel. During their visit, the literature laureates are expected to deliver a speech, known as  the Nobel Lecture, at the Swedish Academy. If the laureate is unable to be in Stockholm, the lecture can be held by other means - for example, by video recording. The literature laureate is also invited to attend a number of peripheral functions, including an evening of recitals at the Royal Dramatic Theatre.


To be given consideration, nominations must be delivered by the end of January. All correspondence received after that date will be considered invalid. The task of sorting through the nominations is given to an official called the Literature Administrator. The Administrator will assemble a Long List of all the current year’s valid nominations and pass it on to the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee. The Committee consists of a small number of members given special responsibility for the Nobel Prize. Current Committee members are Anders Olsson (chair), Ellen Mattson, Jesper Svenbro, Anne Swärd and Per Wästberg. The Permanent Secretary, Mats Malm, function as co-opted member. Besides being prepared for extremely comprehensive reading and evaluation duties, it is important that Committee members possess the willingness and ability to absorb and discuss each other’s opinions. Consequently, they schedule a number of meetings in the spring, adding more if the need should appear.


The Nobel Committee scrutinises the Long List, sometimes adding names with obvious merit for inclusion. In all, the Long List comprises roughly 200 names. The Committee then carefully and purposefully reduces the list to a workable number of authorships to study more intensively. Helping the Committee are the Academy library and staff. In addition to sourcing literature, their help may consist of requisitioning various specialist assessments or translations.


In April, a Semi-long List is finalised. This will normally constitute 20-25 names, now presented by the Nobel Committee to the rest of the Academy. After noting their appraisals, the next step for the Committee will be to prepare a Short List, usually of five names. At this stage, Academy members and staff go into top-secrecy mode. The Academy members are to be given access to as much of the relevant authors’ works as possible while making sure that the works are studied without attracting the attention of even a fly on the wall.


In May, the Short List must be finalised and presented to the entire Academy. All members are now enjoined to read up on the relevant authors’ works during the summer. Every one of the members of the Nobel Committee must write an extensive account giving an assessment of the short-listed authors and making a case for whom they would like to see as the year’s Prize winner. These accounts are to be ready to be shared with the other members when the Academy resumes its convocations in September. Secrecy rules seal these accounts from outsiders for 50 years.


Suddenly, time is upon us! The first of the autumn’s convocations is not called until the first Thursday after 15 September. For a decision to be finalised, at least three convocations must be held. So there might not be a decision ready to coincide with Nobel Week when the other Nobel Prizes are announced. This is sometimes interpreted as late disagreement. Perhaps there is, and in any case it makes a more entertaining scenario. For the choice of Prize winner, a candidate must receive more than half the votes cast. When the decision is finally made, the entire Academy will back it, with the Permanent Secretary acting as spokesperson. All that remains is to wait until the old wall clock in the Secretary’s room once again strikes one p.m. and the door opens...