Pascale Casanova has described the Nobel Prize for literature as ‘a unique laboratory for the designation and determination of what is universal in literature’. It is a setting where global interests converge, ‘one of the few truly international literary consecrations’. The annual award by the Swedish Academy may also serve to indicate, Casanova suggests, the existence of a world literary space riven by structural inequalities—the polar opposite of ‘literary globalization’, understood as a peaceful and progressive homogenization process.footnote1 The metaphor of the Nobel Prize as a laboratory for determining the canon is a striking one; its role in the standardization of literature and language, within a radically unequal literary world, has yet to be defined. Literal laboratories yield literal data—figures, tabulations, measures of a central tendency. In the study of world literature, we cannot marshal real-world test tubes or microscopes to discern the cultural and aesthetic assumptions driving the canon’s formation. However, working within figurative laboratories, we can apply methods of content analysis to yield qualitative and quantitative data that can be weighed and measured, helping us to track the movement of cultural capital through world-literary space. By analysing the official statements, bio-bibliographical sketches and award citations of the Swedish Academy, treated here as data to be counted and sorted, it may be possible to discern the tacit criteria—the political and cultural biases and values—underlying the annual consecration of Nobel laureates and the canonization it implies.footnote2

As the attempt to award the 2016 Prize to Bob Dylan showed, the Swedish Academy may be ultra-liberal in its considerations of literary forms and in curating a nationally diverse roster of laureates.footnote3 However, an examination of its official statements suggests that the Academy has consistently favoured a particular constellation of traits and life experiences, which Dylan’s character and oeuvre fit reasonably well. Certain words, phraseologies, ideologies, literary references and parallel life courses appear throughout its commentaries. I have isolated six such variables. Two of them—histories of exile and rising above humble roots—are common narrative lines in laureates’ personal histories. A third stresses the winning writer’s ideological leanings toward individualism and certain Academy-approved forms of revolution. A fourth is the nearly exclusive use of Western literary allusions in describing writers’ influences and work, even when laureates come from outside the Western tradition. The use of autobiographical content or inspiration is the fifth variable. Finally, there is the question of multilingualism. Non-English laureates are more likely to be multi-lingual than Anglophone winners, who typically have no professional literary credentials in any language but their own. This variable might have remained a curiosity, even a coincidence, were it not for the persistent and growing issue of English hegemony within world literature, especially with regard to translated texts such as those often used by the Swedish Academy.footnote4

Regardless of founder Alfred Nobel’s instructions that the prize be awarded ‘with no consideration given to the nationality of the candidates’, and despite the Swedish Academy’s continuing claim that ‘national roots are irrelevant’ and that it does not recognize ‘what in Europe is often called the literary periphery’, identifiable national biases are visible throughout the Prize’s history.footnote5 Benedict Anderson has delineated three distinct periods within the lifespan of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first, from 1901 to 1939, was characterized by domination by West European nations. Anderson identifies ‘regional favouritism’ within the Swedish Academy during this time in which one-third of the Prizes were awarded to Scandinavian writers, most of whom he does not consider ‘world-class’ authors. During the Cold War era, the international scope of the Nobel Prize extended to literatures all over the globe. Still noticeably snubbed, however, was Russian or Soviet literature: of the four Russian writers rewarded in this period, three were vocally opposed to the Soviet government. Moscow responded by insisting Boris Pasternak decline the Nobel Prize after Dr Zhivago was banned by the regime. Anderson’s final period begins at the end of the Soviet era in 1991. During this time, the Academy has achieved its most global perspective to date—perhaps thereby inspiring enough confidence and self-satisfaction to make it more prone to unintended biases.footnote6

Adopting Anderson’s periodization, I have concentrated on the post-Cold War era, beginning in 1992. I examined the Swedish Academy’s official bio-bibliographical statements and its citations at awards ceremonies, identifying keywords and concepts as recurring variables.footnote7 When these appeared, the laureate in question was coded as positive for that variable. Scores were tabulated, assigning numerical values to how many variables each of the laureates typified (Table 1, below). These reflect how well each writer fitted the ideal profile of a Nobel Prize for Literature laureate. It is, of course, important not to confuse these findings from the biographies and award citations with statements of fact about the laureates. The data here simply reflect what the Academy says, not whether it is justified or even factually accurate.

Also not analysed here are gaffes the Academy makes, revealing its Western-centrism and propensity to Orientalize when it speaks of ‘the spiritual poverty of Trinidad’ in V. S. Naipaul’s biography; describes Derek Walcott’s background as ‘a meeting between European virtuosity and the sensuality of the Caribbean’; reduces Svetlana Alexievich’s journalism to a metaphor about a ‘stenographer’; compliments Orhan Pamuk on being ‘Western enough to have the method to portray’ what he knows from his Eastern sensibilities; speaks of the modern Chinese history Mo Yan writes about as ‘life in a pigsty’; or generally fails to relate to Toni Morrison’s work without becoming mired in references to the whiteness around the black lives she authors, persisting in speaking of them not as subjects but as ‘companion’, ‘racial other’ and ‘shadow’.footnote8 These remarks are important and telling, yet they fall outside the scope of this analysis which is limited to the six recurring variables defined above—humble roots, migration and exile, revolutionary politics and individualism, autobiographical content, Western literary allusions, and multilingualism.

In terms of sheer demographics, the last twenty-five years of Nobel Prize for Literature laureates have been predominantly male. Eighteen men (72 per cent) have received the award, which has gone to women only 7 times (28 per cent) during the same period. By far the greatest proportion of laureates—17 out of the 25 (68 per cent)—were residents of Europe at the time of their awards. Five laureates lived in the Americas (20 per cent), 2 in Asia (8 per cent), 1 in Australia (4 per cent) and none at all in Africa. The most common language was English, the working language of 9 of them (36 per cent). Used by 4 laureates, German was the second most common (16 per cent). Though the term can be problematic to define, by any criteria the majority of the laureates were not people of colour.

As shown below, the six variables isolated in the Nobel Prize’s official statements were represented to some degree in all 25 of the laureates.