Nobel Prize for Literature Winners and Why You Should Read Them

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

There are a lot of prizes out there for writers. But few (barring the Pulitzer) are as prestigious or as lucrative (the 2012 prize was for over 1 million USD) as the Nobel Prize for Literature.

How the prize works

Nobel peace prize winners receive a shiny medal adorned with the image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree, listening to (and scribbling down) the warblings of the Muse, at a prize ceremony on December 10th in Stockholm, Sweden with a Diploma and a document confirming the prize amount. Writers are nominated for the prize by members of the Swedish Academy and similar institutions, university and college literature and linguistics professors, past Nobel Prize winners in literature and presidents of societies of authors that are representative of the literature in a given country.

No writer is allowed to nominate him or herself, in case you were wondering, but making friends with a past winner could help (they can make nominations), and besides, who doesn’t want to discuss magical realism with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or talk about writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye while teaching at Howard University and raising two sons with Toni Morrison?

A little history

Since the award was first given in 1901, one hundred Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 109 writers (some years the prize is shared); there could be even more winners, but on seven occasions no prize was awarded—perhaps the committee had a hard time getting a majority vote, or mankind just didn’t show signs of any idealism those years?

The only reason the Nobel Prizes even exist is because Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, became unbelievably wealthy, and left the majority of his large fortune to a trust (instead of family members or friends) to fund a series of prizes, for producing outstanding work in an “ideal” direction in a variety of disciplines from literature to medicine. Some experts theorize Nobel wanted to make up for the “evil” he brought into the world in the form of dynamite and be remembered in a more positive way.

The 2012 award, announced on October 11, goes to Mo Yan, considered a pioneer for his use of magical realism and traditional folklore in his novels about country life in China.

Why read the winners?

You may be thinking, why read the winners…they’ve received sufficient reward (dollars and cents with lots of zeros). But for a writer, there is no greater reward than having your words read, understood and appreciated. Besides, even though some of the winners have been fairly controversial, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad book written by any writer that has had the good fortune to be a Nobel Literature Laureate. But when there are more than 109 poets, playwrights and authors that have won the award, all of them with more than a few great works on paper the question becomes who and what to read first?

Five of my favorites by Nobel Literature Laureates

1.The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (Winner 1938) – This is a book I picked out from my grandmother’s things after her death for sentimental reasons. It was falling apart at the seams and I wasn’t even sure I would read it, since I intended to save it as a keepsake. But once I started reading it I couldn’t stop. Buck’s evocative descriptions of family life in a small Chinese village had me racing through the book, even as I had to keep the pages together with a rubber band between readings.

2. The Stone Raft by José Saramago (Winner 1998) – Much in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Portuguese writer Saramago was always able to take a wild premise, run with it, and drag his reader along with him. This is definitely the case with The Stone Raft a novel in which the Iberian Peninsula has literally broken ties with Europe and floats freely around the Atlantic Ocean as Saramago’s main characters try to go on with the business of living.

3. The Tower by William Butler Years (Winner 1923)-Okay, so this book of poetry was written after Yeats won the award. It doesn’t matter, because it’s still one of his best books of poetry and includes many of his best known poems such as Sailing to Byzantine and Among School Children. Yeats is a master of disciplined rhymed verse.  Even you think you don’t enjoy poetry in structured verse, give him a try, chances are you (like myself, not so long ago), will be surprised.

4. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Winner 1983) – A disturbing and thought-provoking read, this is one of the books from my required reading list that has stuck with me on my travels. Every time I see a pig’s head in an open market I think about the British boys marooned on a deserted island, especially poor Piggy. This is an exciting, fast-paced read that proves to readers everywhere that literary allegories aren’t just for academics.

5.Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka (Winner 1986) – I don’t read a lot of plays. As a general rule, I prefer fiction. That said, this particular play is worth reading, because it is so different from the plays most of us (okay, me) were forced to read in high school or university. Based on real-life events that took place in 1946 in an ancient African city, Oyo, the play masterfully tells a tale of colonialism and its failure to recognize native cultures as important or worthwhile, in this case the story of the  Yoruba people in Nigeria versus British Colonial authorities.

Have you read any Nobel Literature Laureates? Do you have any favorites?


Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at, read about her travels at, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.