Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature

A year or two ago, while procrastinating, I made a list of writers who would have won the Nobel Prize in Literature in an alternate universe where (A) the Swedish Academy makes better decisions and (B) the Nobel Prize is awarded to three writers a year rather than one, as is normal with the science prizes. Where possible, I tried to give it to three writers whose work had something in common, and I made sure that all writers were still alive in the year they received the prize. I excluded cartoonists, filmmakers and musicians, on the theory that in this alternate universe, each of those fields would have a Nobel Prize of its own.* (EDIT: Now that Bob Dylan has won the real Nobel Prize, the ban on musicians no longer applies.) I think this list is more impressive than the list of writers who actually did win the prize, but it has the major flaw of being too U.S.-centric. If anyone is actually reading this, maybe they could suggest other non-English-language writers who should be included. The list follows:

1901   Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Émile Zola

1902   A.E. Housman, Masaoka Shiki, Algernon Charles Swinburne

1903   Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells

1904   Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anton Chekhov

1905   Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw

1906   Giosuè Carducci, Giovanni Verga, Sarah Orne Jewett

1907   Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Mendele Moykher Sforim

1908   Euclides da Cunha, Rubén Darío, Joaquim Machado de Assis

1909   Liu E, George Meredith, John Millington Synge

1910   Henry Adams, Jack London, Upton Sinclair

1911   L. Frank Baum, E. Nesbit, Beatrix Potter

1912   Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling

1913   Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Constantine P. Cavafy, Georg Trakl

1914   Mori Ogai, Natsume Soseki, Akiko Yosano

1915   Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton

1916   G.K. Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster

1917   Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Valéry, W.B. Yeats

1918   Alexander Blok, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky

1919   Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield

1920   Benito Pérez Galdós, Antonio Machado, Miguel de Unamuno

1921   Andrei Bely, Maxim Gorky, Yevgeny Zamyatin

1922   James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Ryunosuke Akutagawa

1923   Karel Capek, Jaroslav Hasek, Franz Kafka

1924   T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein

1925   Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke

1926   Sean O’Casey, Luigi Pirandello, Italo Svevo

1927   Muhammad Iqbal, Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand

1928   André Breton, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara

1929   Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer

1930   Ahmed Shawqi, Thomas Wolfe, Stefan Zweig

1931   Bertolt Brecht, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus

1932   Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Kenji Miyazawa

1933   John Galsworthy, Attila Jozsef, Raymond Roussel

1934   Mariano Azuela, César Vallejo, Fernando Pessoa

1935   Ding Ling, Lu Xun, Shen Congwen

1936   Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillén, Federico García Lorca

1937   Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva

1938   Georges Bataille, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Colette

1939   Walter Benjamin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West

1940   Isaac Babel, Bruno Schulz, Mikhail Bulgakov

1941   Djuna Barnes, Hilda Doolittle, Virginia Woolf

1942   Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil

1943   Isak Dinesen, Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset

1944   René Char, Jean Giraudoux, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1945   W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes

1946   Alfred Döblin, Hermann Hesse, Robert Walser

1947   Sadegh Hedayat, Nazim Hikmet, Taha Hussein

1948   Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell

1949   John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway

1950   Pablo Neruda, Cesare Pavese, Dylan Thomas

1951   W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens

1952   Flann O’Brien, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse

1953   Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams

1954   Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett

1955   Louis Aragon, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre

1956   Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao

1957   Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia

1958   Fumiko Enchi, Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki

1959   Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Giuseppe Ungaretti

1960   Albert Camus, André Gide, André Malraux

1961   James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright

1962   Mervyn Peake, J.R.R. Tolkien, Shaaban Robert

1963   Odysseus Elytis, Yiannis Ritsos, George Seferis

1964   Flannery O’Connor, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath

1965   Yukio Mishima, Christopher Okigbo, Amos Tutuola

1966   Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

1967   Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Guimarães Rosa, Clarice Lispector

1968   Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Chaim Grade, Nelly Sachs

1969   Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco

1970   Ingeborg Bachmann, Heinrich Böll, Paul Celan

1971   Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Vladimir Nabokov

1972   Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore

1973   Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka

1974   Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa

1975   Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau

1976   J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Tawfiq al-Hakim

1977   Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Hugh MacDiarmid

1978   Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, Octavio Paz

1979   Saul Bellow, Henry Roth, Philip Roth

1980   Zbigniew Herbert, Stanislaw Lem, Czeslaw Milosz

1981   Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Okot p’Bitek

1982   Camilo José Cela, Juan Goytisolo, Merce Rodoreda

1983   Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin

1984   Thomas Bernhard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch

1985   Francis Ponge, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Yourcenar

1986   John Ashbery, C.L.R. James, Danilo Kis

1987   Keri Hulme, Les Murray, Patrick White

1988   Raymond Carver, N. Scott Momaday, Toni Morrison

1989   Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon

1990   Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, Isaac Bashevis Singer

1991   J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing

1992   Wilson Harris, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott

1993   Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs

1994   Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro

1995   Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon

1996   Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, Mahmoud Darwish

1997   Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Milorad Pavic

1998   Eugenio de Andrade, João Cabral de Melo Neto, José Saramago

1999   Günter Grass, W.G. Sebald, Christa Wolf

2000   Bei Dao, Mo Yan, Yang Lian

2001   Tahar Ben Jelloun, Assia Djebar, Ousmane Sembène

2002   Yasar Kemal, Cormac McCarthy, J.D. Salinger

2003   Roberto Bolaño, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Muriel Spark

2004   Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, August Wilson

2005   Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith

2006   Chingiz Aitmatov, Ismail Kadare, Orhan Pamuk

2007   David Grossman, Marilynne Robinson, David Foster Wallace

2008   Anita Desai, Mahasweta Devi, Rohinton Mistry

2009   Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman

2010   Geoffrey Hill, Tomas Tranströmer, Adam Zagajewski

2011   Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe

2012   Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling

2013   Svetlana Aleksievich, Lydia Davis, Ko Un

2014   Adonis, Jon Fosse, Patrick Modiano

2015   Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim

2016   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Buchi Emecheta, Nicanor Parra

2017   Elena Ferrante, Nuruddin Farah, Javier Marías

2018   Mia Couto, Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje

2019   Junot Díaz, Louise Erdrich, Rebecca Solnit

2020   Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Duong Thu Huong, Amitav Ghosh

Notable omissions: Joseph Roth (d. 1939), Ryszard Kapuscinski (d. 2007), Eduardo Galeano (d. 2015)

Future winners: Cesar Aira, Hilary Mantel

Too many American and British

8/3/15: Edited to add Tawfiq al-Hakim for 1976 and replace George R.R. Martin with Ursula K. Le Guin for 2012

3/18/16: Edited to replace Max Jacob with WB Yeats for 1917, so that I could add Premchand for 1936; also added prizes for 2017

5/18/16: Edited to replace E.L. Doctorow with Ian McEwan for 2009, and add Pramoedya Ananta Toer for 2006; also replaced John Updike with Yasar Kemal for 2002

6/4/16: Edited to replace C.S. Lewis with Shaaban Robert for 1962

11/29/16: Switched the winners for 2015 and 2016 because Leonard Cohen died in 2016

1/25/17: Changed my mind about 2019, replaced John McPhee with Junot Díaz

3/1/17: Changed my mind again, replaced Wendell Berry with Louise Erdrich

5/23/17: Added 2020, switched Buchi Emecheta for Amitav Ghosh since she died in 2017

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2 thoughts on “Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature

  1. Ok. M. De Assis is on your list and that’s very good (of course I’m brazilian). Brazil had a bit of modernism too; I would really consider Graciliano Ramos and Clarice Lispector to the list. Ingmar Bergman should be in the list as an exception to the rule. I didn’t saw Bohumil Hrabal and he should have won. Great list.

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