Jean Paul Sartre was offered the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Famously, he declined, as he declined all official literary honours, stating that writers should not allow themselves to be turned into an institution. Looking at the history of Nobel Prizes, however, one may wonder if the conferment of a Nobel Prize in Literature in itself would be capable at all of institutionalising a writer.
Among the winners, the number of writers who are still read around the world decades after having won the prize (Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, Selma Lagerlöf, and, ironically, Sartre himself) is overshadowed by the sheer number of winners who are no longer read, or worse, who were not even read at the time of winning their Prize.
The most famous Literature nominee of the twenty-first century is certainly well read. Year after year, Haruki Murakami’s name comes up as the most likely next laureate, although his nomination cannot be confirmed: the Nobel committee keeps the list of nominees under a fifty-year embargo. Murakami was the favourite for the 2014 prize, for instance, with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o coming up second.
However, the winner turned out to be Patrick Modiano. At the time of the press release announcing Modiano as the winner, in October 2014, he was barely known outside France, and none of his works were available in English translation. His winning the Nobel Prize led to a reprint of 15,000 copies of the three works that had previously been published in the US. Yale University Press was due to publish a collection of three of Modiano’s novellas this February: his winning the Nobel Prize led to an earlier publication date in November 2014 and an increase from 2,000 to 20,000 copies for worldwide distribution.
The obscurity of many of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature stands in stark contrast to the prestige and monetary power of the Nobel institute as a whole. The Literature Prize comes with a monetary prize of 8 million kronor (£630.000), making it the world’s richest literary prize. One could almost call it fitting, then, that most of the winners will have made a fortune from selling their literary works already.
The prize does not seem to influence reading behaviour. One reason may be that the Nobel Prize awards a writer’s lifetime achievements. No Nobel Prize for Literature has ever been awarded to the same person twice, and it is extremely unlikely that this will ever happen. The official statement announcing the reasons for awarding the prize to the winner hardly ever contains references to a specific title. An exception is Ernest Hemingway, who received the Prize “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea.” A famous author will already have sold well before becoming a laureate, while an unknown author who wins the prize is hard to sell if there is no one specific title that the publishers can use as a flagship.
This may be why the Man Booker Prize and other literary prizes are so much more influential in expanding the author’s readership. The Man Booker Prize, for instance, is awarded to a specific book published that year. According to the Guardian, who surveyed the influence of the Man Booker Prize up to 2012, its sales increased anywhere from 450% to 1900% in the week after a book had won the Booker. No Booker winner has sold less than 180,000 copies.
The comparison to the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in particular leads to an interesting observation: when the winner of this prize is a human, they are almost certainly sure to have written a bestseller, whereas this is not guaranteed for their Literature peers. (The Peace Prize is the one category in which institutions, such as the EU, the Red Cross and the UNHCR, have been awarded prizes.) Individual winners, such as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai, and, almost incomprehensibly, Al Gore, have all topped bestseller lists. Similarly, winning Nobel Prizes in other fields have often led to very expensive book deals, although these books are often unlikely to win any book prizes that are based on literary merit.
The major exception to this comparison is Winston Churchill, who is often thought to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but actually won the Prize for Literature in 1953,. If nothing else, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is always a surprise.