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14 Nobel Prize-Winning Authors

Erin McCarthy
Clockwise from left: Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and Nadine Gordimer.
Clockwise from left: Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and Nadine Gordimer. / David Levenson/Getty Images (Ishiguro), Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images (Morrison), Ulf Andersen/Getty Images (Gordimer, Marquez)
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The Swedish Academy has been awarding Nobel Prizes in Literature since 1901; in 2022, it awarded the prize to French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” Here are a few laureates whose books you might want to consider picking up.

1. Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck sitting at a desk.
Pearl S. Buck At Home / Schafer/GettyImages

The 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature went to The Good Earth author “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” In her speech, Buck accepted for herself and for America, adding, “I should not be truly myself if I did not, in my own wholly unofficial way, speak also of the people of China, whose life has for so many years been my life also, whose life, indeed, must always be a part of my life. The minds of my own country and of China, my foster country, are alike in many ways, but above all, alike in our common love of freedom. And today more than ever, this is true, now when China’s whole being is engaged in the greatest of all struggles, the struggle for freedom.”

2. Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison. / Todd Plitt/GettyImages

Toni Morrison became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for being, in the committee’s words, an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

When she found out about her win via a phone call from a friend, The Bluest Eye and Beloved author thought it was a prank: “I thought, ‘what?’ I thought she was seeing things,” Morrison told Interview magazine in 2012. “So I hung up on her! … Because I thought, ‘how would she know something that I wouldn’t know?’ She called me right back and said, ‘what’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘where’d you hear that?’ And she said, ‘I heard it from Bryant Gumbel on the Today show.’ So then I had to think, ‘well … maybe?’ But there had been so many moments—as I later learned, more than I thought—when people believed they were going to get it, and journalists were beginning to circle, and they didn’t get it.”

3. Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro / Leonardo Cendamo/GettyImages

In 2017, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro—who has also been knighted, and whose portrait hung in 10 Downing Street when Tony Blair was prime minister—won the Nobel Prize in Literature for being an author “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

It wasn’t a future Ishiguro had seen for himself as a young man; as he recalled in his Nobel acceptance speech [PDF], when he began attending a creative writing course in 1979, “I’d written little else of note in the way of prose fiction, having earned my place on the course with a radio play rejected by the BBC. In fact, having previously made firm plans to become a rock star by the time I was 20, my literary ambitions had only recently made themselves known to me.”

4. Albert Camus

Portrait of Albert Camus
Portrait of Albert Camus / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Three years before his 1960 death in a car accident, Albert Camus, author of The Stranger, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”

Upon hearing the news of his win, Camus, who grew up impoverished, wrote to Louis Germain, the teacher who helped him get a scholarship to high school:

I don’t make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

After Camus’s final novel, The First Man, was finally published in English more than three decades after his death, his daughter, Catherine, said in an interview that “throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere.”

5. Mo Yan

Mo Yan
Mo Yan. / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

Mo Yan—whose first novel, Red Sorghum, was published as a serial in 1986 before being released in book form the following year—won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012 for being a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.”

Born Guan Moye in a village in China’s Shandong Province in 1955, Yan came by his desire to write through reading books his older brother, a university student, had left behind at home. “I think all writers start as keen readers,” he said in an interview after winning. “We develop a desire to write while reading. We like to learn how to write.” Inspiration, he said, often comes from childhood: “All writers start by writing about their childhood, especially childhood memories … The experiences I had in my childhood have been crucial to my writing. I wrote about all kinds of animals and plants in my novels. I wrote about the close and mysterious relationship between children and nature. This is all inseparable of my personal experiences.”

Even his pen name is a reflection of his youth. “In Chinese, Mo Yan means don’t speak,” the author told Humanities in 2011. “I was born in 1955. At that time in China, people’s lives were not normal. So my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and I did not speak. When I started to write, I thought every great writer had to have a pen name. I remembered my mom and my dad telling me do not speak. So I took Mo Yan for my pen name. It is ironic that I have this name because I now speak everywhere.”

6. Günter Grass

Gunter Grass
Gunter Grass / Gie Knaeps/GettyImages

The Tin Drum author—who grew up in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) and took his first crack at novel writing when he was 13 in response to an advertisement in a Hitler Youth magazine—won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, the year he published My Century. Grass’s “frolicsome black fables,” the committee wrote, “portray the forgotten face of history.”

At the end of World War II, when he was 17, Grass was drafted into the Waffen-SS, a fact that he only revealed just before his memoir, Peeling the Onion, was released in 2006; the book grapples both with the author’s history and his subsequent silence and shame. He faced plenty of criticism—not to mention calls to strip him of his Nobel Prize—but garnered much support from other authors, among them John Irving, whose novel A Prayer for Owen Meany was influenced by The Tin Drum.

7. Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer. / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

The South African author of 10 novels, including The Conservationist and My Son’s Story, published her first work at just 15. Gordimer was part of the anti-apartheid movement and it informed much of her work. (She was such a vocal critic that the regime even banned some of her books.) She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 for being an author “who through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity.”

Speaking to The Paris Review in 1979 and 1980, Gordimer said that her first trip out of the African continent to England and America—undertaken at 30, when she had already published two novels—“brought an understanding of what I was, and helped me to shed the last vestiges of colonialism. I didn’t know I was a colonial, but then I had to realize that I was. Even though my mother was only 6 when she came to South Africa from England, she still would talk about people ‘going home.’ But after my first trip out, I realized that ‘home’ was certainly and exclusively—Africa. It could never be anywhere else.”

8. Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse
Hermann Hesse / Keystone/GettyImages

Hermann Hesse, author of Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.”

The German-born author, who began living in Switzerland in 1914, abhorred the Nazis; he was ill and couldn’t attend the Nobel banquet ceremony to accept himself, so, the Swiss minister read his speech, which said, in part, “may diversity in all shapes and colors live long on this dear Earth of ours. What a wonderful thing is the existence of many races, many peoples, many languages, and many varieties of attitude and outlook! If I feel hatred and irreconcilable enmity toward wars, conquests, and annexations, I do so for many reasons, but also because so many organically grown, highly individual, and richly differentiated achievements of human civilization have fallen victim to these dark powers.”

9. Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing. / David Levenson/GettyImages

Doris Lessing sold her first short stories when she was 15 and would go on to write dozens of works over the course of her life. She had been working in a lawyer’s office when she had an epiphany. “I said: Enough now, I’m going to write this novel,” she recalled in 2008. “And I went in to see my boss, Mr. Hill, and I said: ‘Mr. Hill, I’m going to leave you and I’m going to write a novel,’ at which of course he fell about laughing.”

It would take her many years to write The Grass Is Singing, published in 1950. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007, the committee called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire, and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”

Lessing, who was born in Iran in 1919 before moving to what is now Zimbabwe with her British parents, was not really about accepting honors or awards: She turned down an OBE in 1977 and a damehood in 1993. “There is something ruritannical about honors given in the name of a non-existent empire,” she said about the latter, noting that in her youth, she had tried “to undo that bit of the British empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia … surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honors from a institution she attacked when young?” (She accepted a Companion of Honour instead, because, she explained, “you're not called anything—and it's not demanding. I like that.”)

This perhaps explains why, upon hearing that she had won the prize, Lessing—at 88, the oldest writer to have received the award—responded with two words: “Oh Christ.”

10. Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz. / Micheline Pelletier/GettyImages

The Adrift on the Nile author wrote more than 30 novels and 350 short stories, and frequently used Cairo—his birthplace—as the setting for his works. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 for being an author “who, through works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous—has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Mahfouz—who was not able to attend the Nobel ceremony in 1988—did an interview with journalist Mohamed Salmawy in 2006 reflecting on his win, saying that “it encouraged me to continue writing.” But there was another side to the accolade, too: “On the personal level, winning Nobel imposed on me a lifestyle to which I am not used and which I would not have preferred,” he said. “I accepted the interviews and encounters that had to be held with the media, but I would have preferred to work in peace.”

11. Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre. / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher and author of The Age of Reason, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 “for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.” But the author refused to accept the prize—and was the first person to willingly do so. “My refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors,” he wrote later. “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word.” 

12. Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer / Evening Standard/GettyImages

Isaac Bashevis Singer, author of The Family Moskat, was a journalist who emigrated to the United States four years before the rise of the Nazis. He wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish and won in 1978 “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.”

When accepting the award, Singer said that “The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language—a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. … One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality,” adding, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.”

13. Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka. / Leonardo Cendamo/GettyImages

Author and political activist Wole Soyinka doesn’t restrict himself to just one form of writing: He has penned plays (including A Dance of the Forests), poetry (Indare, and Other Poems, among others), novels (like The Interpreters), and beyond. Soyinka, who was born in Nigeria in 1934, has said “there was no definite moment when I said, now I'm a writer. I've always been a writer.”

During the country’s civil war, Soyinka was imprisoned for nearly two years after he publicly made the case for a cease-fire in 1967. (Nigerian authorities claimed he had been working with Biafran rebels and even released a false confession.) Prison didn’t stop him from writing, though; he used homemade ink and wrote on toilet paper and cigarette packets, ultimately publishing The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka in 1972. Soyinka became the first Black author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. In the committee’s words, he is a writer “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”

On the publication of his third novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, in 2021, Soyinka discussed the differences in writing a novel versus a play, telling The New Yorker, “What the novel does for me as a medium of expression is to assuage the masochist in me, because the novel is very taxing—taxing in the sense that it’s tempting to go in so many directions. Theatre, for me, is more focused. When you’re a narrator, you’re juggling a number of characters, and they insist on wandering very willfully in directions which you did not preview, you know? And then you forget where you last saw them, and so on. I really praise novelists, those whose métier is a novel. I have a hard time at it.”

14. Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. / Ulf Andersen/GettyImages

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez—the writer of books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Choleratook home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

It’s fitting, then, that in his lecture accepting the honor, titled “The Solitude of Latin America,” the author chose to focus on the mythic legends of the region (the fountain of youth, the legendary city of El Dorado) and shed light on the challenges it faced—narcissistic dictators, civil wars and coups, wide-scale death, oppression, and imprisonment.

“If these difficulties, whose essence we share, hinder us, it is understandable that the rational talents on this side of the world, exalted in the contemplation of their own cultures, should have found themselves without valid means to interpret us,” he said. “It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. Venerable Europe would perhaps be more perceptive if it tried to see us in its own past.”

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