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For Whom the Bell Tolls No: 4 Authors Who Missed out on Nobel Prizes

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on September 29, 2017
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Kazuo Ishiguro

British author Kazuo Ishiguro has won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, ending speculation that it might be one of...three other authors.

Of the prize’s six categories, Literature comes second only to Peace in terms of anticipation and discussion, and this year was no exception. Ladbrokes had listed the favourites this year:

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Haruki Murakami, and Margaret Atwood. These favourites were a familiar sight to almost anyone who has taken even a cursory interest in the prize. Murakami has been a frontrunner every year for over a decade, while Thiong’o has been almost as consistent a fixture. Only Margaret Atwood had seen a serious upswing in her favour, having not placed in the top ten last year.

But as New Republic journalist Alex Shephard pointed out in his lengthy article on Who Will Win the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature , in which no mention of Kazuo Ishiguro was made, "if the Nobel Committee ever picks a writer not on the Ladbrokes list, it’s going to be this year."

It would seem that the Nobel Prize in Literature has an almost fixed cast of nominees, in which the various favourites are simply shifting and swapping places over the years. Even 2016’s surprise winner, Bob Dylan, had been a consistent favourite over the few past years. (You can read more about his controversial win here and here.)

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American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan made waves last year for being the controversial recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Despite the enormous speculation and discussion that surrounds the yearly favourites, the actual facts of the nominations are kept surprisingly opaque and this year was no exception. While we get some peeks behind the curtain, the official nominations for each year are kept secret until 50 years after they are made. As of right now, the Nobel Prize’s database only shows the list of nominations from 1901 to 1966. The authors of today won’t know for certain whether they were being put forward for consideration. We could all be racking up nominations, and we wouldn’t even know.

Perhaps it’s for the best, as taking a deep dive through the database of nominations reveals some authors who, over the years, lost. A lot.

The nomination process for the Nobel Prize is quite extensive; each year the Swedish Academy receive a huge number of nominations from the various academies and qualified nominators. These are then considered and a somewhat smaller list of approved candidates is chosen, from there a shortlist of five authors is selected and from this the winner is chosen. This year alone the Swedish Academy has received and approved 195 candidates.

With such great numbers it’s not surprising to that entrants might be submitted over and over. However, there are still some cases where it seems incredible that, despite years of nominations, the author had to do without that most prestigious of accolades. Fame and widespread acclaim have not necessarily been an assurance against this kind of Nobel neglect. There have been quite a number of great 20th-century authors who received nominations but never won.

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Graham Greene

Among the noteworthy names is Graham Greene, who was nominated 20 times over 11 years. These nominations came following the publication of his highly lauded novels The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter in which Greene explores themes of religion, sin, and moral struggle, set against the backdrops of Mexico and Sierra Leone respectively. Greene saw these, and many of his works, receive both popular and critical success, and this was reflected in his numerous nominations. In fact, he was not only nominated, but shortlisted for the prize in 1966 (the most recently released year in the database). Greene continued to produce works of note in the following years, and so we can reasonably assume there are more nominations to be revealed. However none of them were ever converted into a win.

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E. M. Forster

Similarly to Greene, E.M Forster received an astounding number of nominations during his career. His 29 nominations over 16 years came from an enormous range of nominators including Prince Carl Bernadotte of Sweden and J.R.R. Tolkien. Forster’s works, including Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Passage to India, explored the hypocrisy of society life in Britain. Like Greene he was massively successful in both popular and critical circles but this didn’t ensure his winning a Nobel prize.

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Finally among our well-known writers is American poet Robert Frost who was nominated over 30 times in 11 years. Frost, known for his philosophical themes and rural imagery, was also greatly lauded in his own time and was frequently honoured with awards, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry as well as the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960. Despite this consistent acclaim for his work, as well as the impressive persistence of his nominators, the Nobel Prize was not to be among his many awards.

As baffling as it can be to see such highly revered writers consistently pipped to the post, it’s not the only kind of mystery to be found in the database of nominees. It’s time to take a look at those who were considered so important by the various nominators as to receive a ludicrous number of nominations, and yet failed to win the prize or even a place in the cultural memory. There have been a great number of highly nominated authors who have fallen by the historical wayside.

The first author we’re going to look at in this context is Tarjei Vesaas. Vesaas is one of Norway’s most highly esteemed 20th-century writers, and the country’s most important author since World War II. In his work he chiefly represented rural characters who undergo enormous psychological trauma, as can be seen in his most notable works The Ice Palace and The Birds. Critics have applauded Vesaas’ insight around themes of death, guilt, and anguish. He received 30 nominations for the Nobel Prize, over 18 years, yet much of his work remains untranslated and his name has been largely forgotten.

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Ramón Menéndez Pidal

The most incredible Nobel nominee by far however, is Ramón Menéndez Pidal. He has almost three times the amount nominations as anyone else, garnering 151 nominations over 22 years. In 1956 alone, he garnered 95 nominations. Despite this impressive indicator of the merit of his skill, the of work of this Spanish historian and philologist has remained largely untranslated and Menéndez Pidal himself remains obscure. It’s a shame, as he was a fascinating figure, famous for his study and commentary on the iconic Spanish medieval poem, El Cantar de Mio Cid. Menéndez Pidal also did extensive work on Spanish etymology and folklore. His monumental work, Historia de España or History of Spain remained unfinished following his death, but he is still credited with establishing the almost universally accepted vision of medieval Spain. It seems utterly incredible that with such cultural importance to be nominated with such persistence, Menéndez Pidal not only failed to get a Nobel Prize, but also failed to make his mark on the cultural consciousness.

It’s clear that while the Nobel Prize for literature is considered an apex of literary achievement, it should not be seen as the only benchmark. There have been a great number of iconic writers who were never even nominated for the prize, such as Mark Twain and James Joyce, and as we have seen, a great number who, in spite of years of nominations, never quite made it to the top of the Swedish Academy’s pile. But perhaps it is this unpredictable and unexpected aspect to the prize that makes it such a source of fascination and speculation, and who knows, maybe this year we could be in for another surprise. 


Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.


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