The Nobel Prize in Literature (Swedish: Nobelpriset i litteratur) is awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, produced "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency" (original Swedish: den som inom litteraturen har producerat det utmärktaste i idealisk riktning). The "work" in this case refers to an author's work as a whole, though individual works are sometimes also cited. The Swedish Academy decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize in any given year and announces the name of the chosen laureate in early October.
The original citation of this Nobel Prize has led to much controversy. In the original Swedish, the word idealisk can be translated as either "idealistic" or "ideal". In earlier years the Nobel Committee interpreted the intent of the will strictly, and did not award certain world-renowned authors of the time such as Leo Tolstoy and Henrik Ibsen, probably because their works were not "idealistic" enough. More recently the wording has been interpreted much more liberally, and the Prize is awarded allegedly for lasting literary merit. The choice of the Academy can still cause controversy, particularly for the selection of lesser-known writers (or writers working in avant garde forms) such as Dario Fo in 1997 and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004.
The Nobel Prize is not the sole measure of literary excellence and lasting worth. Critics of the prize point out that many well-known writers have not been awarded the prize, or even been nominated.
Each year the Swedish Academy sends out requests for nominations of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Members of the Academy, members of literature academies and societies, professors of literature and language, former Nobel literature laureates, and the presidents of writers' organizations are all allowed to nominate a candidate. However, it is not possible to nominate oneself.
Thousands of requests are sent out each year, and about fifty proposals are returned. These proposals must be received by the Academy by February 1, after which they are examined by the Nobel Committee. By April, the Academy narrows the field to around twenty candidates, and by summer the list is reduced further to some five names. The subsequent months are then spent in reviewing the works of eligible candidates. In October that year, members of the Academy vote, and the candidate who receives more than half the number of votes is named the Nobel Laureate in Literature. The process is similar to those of other Nobel Prizes. In principle, nominations and deliberations remain secret for 50 years, but some nominations become known or are so claimed by publicists.
The prize money of the Nobel Prize has been fluctuating since its inauguration but as present stands at 10 million Swedish kronor. The winner also wins a gold medal and a Nobel diploma, and is invited to give a lecture during the prize-giving ceremony, on December 10, in Stockholm that year.
The Prize in Literature has a history of controversial awards. From 1901 to 1912 the committee was characterized by an interpretation of the "ideal direction" stated in Nobel's will as "a lofty and sound idealism", which caused Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola to be rejected. During World War I and its immediate aftermath, the committee adopted a policy of neutrality, favouring writers from non-combatant countries.
It has been suggested that W. H. Auden's poorly received (yet bestselling) translation to 1961 Peace Prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld's Vägmärken ("Markings"), coupled with statements made by Auden during a Scandinavian lecture tour suggesting that Hammarskjöld was homosexual (as was Auden), negated Auden's chances of receiving the prize.
The Nobel winner in 1970, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did not attend the prize ceremony in Stockholm for fear that he would not be allowed to return afterwards to the USSR (where his works were circulated in samizdat-- clandestine form). After the Swedish government refused to honor Solzhenitsyn with a public award ceremony and lecture at its Moscow embassy, Solzhenitsyn refused the award altogether, commenting that the conditions set by the Swedes (who preferred a private ceremony) were "an insult to the Nobel Prize itself." Solzhenitsyn did not accept the award, and prize money, until December 10, 1974, following his arrest and deportation from the Soviet Union.
During 1974 Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were considered, but rejected for a joint award in favor of Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both Nobel judges themselves. Bellow would win the prize in 1976; neither Greene nor Nabokov were honoured.
The award to Dario Fo in 1997 was initially considered "rather lightweight" by some critics, as he was seen primarily as a performer and had previously been censured by the Roman Catholic Church. According to Fo's London publisher, Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller were favourites to win that year, but the organisers stated that they would have been "too predictable, too popular".
The choice of the 2004 winner, Elfriede Jelinek, drew criticism from academicians themselves. Knut Ahnlund (who had not played an active role in the academy since 1996) resigned saying that picking Jelinek had caused "irreparable damage" to the award's reputation.
Jorge Luis Borges was considered for the prize for many years but, as Borges' biographer Edwin Williamson stated, he did not receive it due to his political views.