About five years ago, Ankhi Mukherjee, a professor of world literature at Oxford University, received a letter asking whether she wanted to nominate someone for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She assumed it was a hoax.
“I couldn’t believe the process was so informal,” Mukherjee recalled in an interview.
Only after talking with colleagues, many of whom had received the same surprise in the mail, did Mukherjee realize the request was genuine. The sudden responsibility “was exciting,” she recalled.
The Nobel Prize is arguably the world’s most secretive literary award. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that each October a handful of Swedish literary experts simply meet in a grand hall in Stockholm and then argue over which author, poet, playwright or musician to give that year’s award to.
In reality, the process is far more byzantine.
Each November, the Swedish Academy sends out thousands of letters seeking nominations. A request goes to every living laureate, to the chairs of writers’ organizations, to “professors of literature and language subjects” at prominent universities, as well as to members of the Swedish Academy and similar institutions around the world.
Once a nominator submits their choice, the academy sends them a thank-you note (until recently, it arrived in the mail on embossed paper), but otherwise breaks off contact. Nominators are barred from speaking about their choices — Mukherjee declined to discuss whether she had ever taken up the academy’s offer to nominate somebody.
Nominators’ suggestions are also kept secret in the Nobel Prize archives for 50 years, although the online archive now makes public all of the nominations from 1901 to 1971.
In January, the academy collates all of the suggestions to draw up a longlist of about 300 names. Then the members of the its special Nobel Committee whittle the list down, sometimes adding their own picks. In May, the committee presents a shortlist of five candidates to the wider academy, and its members are invited to catch up on each writer’s work before choosing a laureate in the fall.
What makes a good Nobel choice? For Mukherjee, a writer must have produced a “critical mass of excellent writing which also innovates continually.”
For other Nobel observers, more prosaic considerations are also important. Jacob Blakesley, an associate professor in comparative literature at the University of Rome, said that an author was more likely to be given the Nobel if their work has been translated into Swedish, since that is most Academy members’ native tongue.
Being the recipient of other major awards, such as the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, also helps, Blakesley said, “as they’re seen as a more objective measure that ‘This is an amazing writer.’”
Blakesley, who said he had never been asked to nominate someone for the prize, said a typical Nobel laureate also had political relevance and spoke to wider events. Ludmila Ulitskaya, a Russian author who moved to Berlin after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would be a good pick this year, because she spoke to events in Eastern Europe, he said.
The final stage in the decision-making process is kept as secret as possible.
The academics who take part don’t find out the recipient until the official announcement, along with everyone else. Mukherjee said she had no problem with the secrecy. Every year, she said, she waits for the announcement, “excited to be surprised.”