The Most Unexpected & Controversial Nobel Laureates in Literature

Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. While Dylan is a widely admired artist who works with language, many folks were still surprised that a singer-songwriter working in the rock, folk, and jazz genres would win a prize for literature. After all, when most people think of literature, they think of prose and poetry, novels and stories.

Of course, there is no Nobel Prize in music, so if the Academy was of a mind to honor Dylan, Literature was their only real choice. One can imagine the controversy that would result if Dylan were awarded the Nobel Prize in, say, Physiology.

And Dylan’s Award is not the first odd, unexpected, or controversial choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. After all, the Academy is composed of people, and people sometimes get a case of Space Madness and do something surprising, like give nearly $1 million to a venerable icon of folk music. Here are some of the other surprising choices the Academy has made in the field of Literature over the years.

Müller, born in Romania but speaking and working in German, was selected in 2009, a year in which American critics gave up any pretense of civility and simply complained outright that no one in America had ever heard of her. While it’s not surprising that Americans would complain that if they hadn’t heard of a writer they couldn’t be very good, the controversy did raise the issue of the Academy’s Eurocentric attitude and narrow focus, although the committee members defended their choice of Müller, describing her work as having the “concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose ... [depicting] the landscape of the dispossessed.”

The question of how global or universal the Nobel Academy is when choosing work comes up repeatedly; they’re often accused of being Eurocentric. The decision to award the Nobel to Jelinek in 2004 was controversial for the simple reason that, outside of Austria and Germany, few people had heard of her. Academy member Knut Ahnlund, in fact, resigned over her selection, saying that her work was “whining, unenjoyable public pornography ... a mass of text shoveled together without artistic structure.” While Ahnlund might be praised for not mincing words and taking a stand, Jelinek did herself no favors by first suggesting that she’d been selected solely because she was a woman and the Academy wanted to burnish its feminist bona fides, then by choosing not to attend the ceremony in person—an act sure to irritate the Academy. Twelve years later, Jelinek remains largely unknown outside of German-speaking areas of the world.

Known more for his acting and performing than his writing, Fo was an unusually lightweight choice in 1997 and his selection drew many complaints. Fo’s influence, however, is huge; his works have been performed worldwide, and his activism and resurrection of long-dormant art forms made him one of the most dynamic and interesting artists of the 20th century. When he won the prize in 1997 even many of his fellow Italians and artists in the theater world, who regarded him as outdated and perhaps over-valued, expressed serious confusion—although it should be noted that Umberto Eco was delighted at the selection, and praised the Academy for it.

In 1974 these two writers beat out Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Hey, someone’s got to lose, right?) Of course, the fact that no one outside of Sweden had heard of them, their work was considered to be rather mainstream and lightweight, and they were both members of the Academy at the time made everything seem super sketchy to the rest of the world. However, consider this: Martinson was so disturbed by the criticisms and the suggestion that they’d engaged in a cheat he committed suicide in 1978.

Dylan's Unexpected ... but Maybe Deserved

See? Even the super serious and somewhat dry Nobel Prizes can have their juicy moments. Still, even these controversial figures are all writers in the traditional sense: novelists, poets, playwrights. Bob Dylan is a rock star, although his lyrics are widely regarded as some of the best in the history of popular music and have penetrated just about every facet of popular culture, to the point where you can make a Dylan reference that people will get even if they’ve never heard a single song. When considered from that angle, Dylan’s selection this year seems more than deserved.