Nobel Prize for Nonfiction?

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his epic six-volume The Second World War. (Yes, I know that the prize is technically given out for lifetime achievement, but I also know that sometimes that is a polite fiction, so to speak.)

The only other person I can think of who won it primarily for non-fiction was Bertrand Russell. Even Alexander Solzhenitsyn won it as much if not more for his fiction.

Am I missing anyone? And if not, why is the prize no longer given out for non-fiction and who would your candidates be if it were?

The 1902 laureate was Theodor Mommsen, a German classicist whose most famous work was the multi-volume History of Rome

Oddly enough, one might even be able to make the case that the non-fiction awards are becoming more common. Glancing through a list of all the recipiants, the obvious non-fiction writers amongst them are Mommsen (1902), Russell (1950), Churchill (1953) and Sarte (1964), who did write fiction, but who was surely (?) being rewarded for his philisophical works. Then you’ve got the case of Canetti (1981), whose single best known book is probably Crowds and Power. I’d also possibly quibble about Solzhenitsyn. My hesitation is the sheer unfamiliarity of the early recipiants, coupled with the early bias towards Scandanavia. The criteria for all the Prizes obviously have shifted over the years.

What I think is difficult to imagine is that the Swedish Academy might make such an award now. One might even suggest that this is tied to the perception that the Literature Prize is a matter of Buggin’s Turn these days; we haven’t given it to someone from the Middle East, so let’s give it to Mahfouz, etc. In this view, non-fiction is a complication. (Actually, I’m not wildly convinced by the “everyone must have prizes” explanation: there’s Saramago getting it the year after Fo for a start.)

As for which contemporary non-fiction writers should get the Prize? Cecil, surely.

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.

My candidate would be Eric Hobsbawm.

Age of Extremes is mindblowing.

I’ve only browsed through the ages of Revouliton, Capital and Empire but what little I’ve read of them is very impressive also.

Taken together he’s written a world history from 1789 to 1991. And he can write…

Perhaps Exapno Mapcase ought to email the Prize Committee on behalf of the SMDB if a clear candidate emerges?