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The Most Unlikely Nobel Prize for Literature Winners

November 4, 2016

It’s arguably the world’s top prize for writers. But for every Nobel Prize for Literature that understandably went to a luminary like Toni Morrison or Samuel Beckett, the award has a few head-scratchers in its history.
Nobel Prize for Literature Facts

  • The 2016 recipient, iconic folk-rocker Bob Dylan came as a surprise to many—in part because he’s the first musician to ever take home the Nobel Prize for Literature. It usually goes to novelists, playwrights, historians, and poets—not songwriters. However, his name had been blowing in the wind for years—in 2014, for example, he was reportedly in consideration but considered a longshot.
  • There were two Winston Churchills who wrote books. One was a popular American novelist in the early 20th century; the other was the English statesman who led the Allies to victory in World War II. Under the pen name Winston S. Churchill (to differentiate from the American Churchill), he wrote a novel, his memoirs, and a dozen nonfiction and history books. Among them were the four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, one of the most important history books ever written. Churchill is the only major political leader to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • The finalists for the 1974 prize were all well-known literary titans: Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Saul Bellow, and Graham Greene. Well, almost all of them were because the recipients of the prize were Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. For the first and only time, the Nobel for Literature was given as a joint award, and to these two authors. Both of them were barely known outside of their home country, of Sweden. Sweden is also where the Nobel Prize committees meet, and Johnson and Martinson were actually on the Nobel Prize committee.
  • The Nobel represents a lifetime body of work. That means an author is generally a but old when they receive it—the vast majority have been in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, at the time of recognition. Not Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling. He got the Nobel in 1907 when he was just 42, and still an extremely popular and good-selling author.
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