Thanks, both of you. It does say something about the fame/obscurity of Nobel Prize winners that even someone like me, who has spent his entire life surrounded by books, knew so little about this question.
According to the Nobel Prize site: Literature is one of the five prize areas mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will. The will was, however, partly incomplete. Nobel simply stated that prizes be given to those who, during the preceding year, “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and that one part be given to the person who “shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
Whatever that means. However, unless you decide that “literature” = “fiction” it would seem to me that one could more easily find works “in an ideal direction” among nonfiction, and that many of the fiction authors who have won would not easily qualify under these rules.
As you say, bonzer, the award has devolved into a Whose Line Is It Anyway? revolving prize wheel to ensure that every area of the earth gets represented. But I would be surprised if some of the best literature on the striving for an idea weren’t nonfiction coming out of the more oppressed areas of the world, and I’d like to see those recognized.