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The Nobel Prize for Literature is the biggest literary prize in the world. It’s huge. Really huge.
The monetary prize is SEK 10,000,000 which is somewhere between £700,000 and £800,000 depending on exchange rates. The point of this money is to give the people who win it the financial freedom they need to carry on with their great works, and to continue sharing their gifts with the rest of the world.
The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded almost every year since 1901. This year, Svetlana Alexievich became only the 14th woman to ever win the prize. The good news is that female Nobel Prize winning writers are becoming more frequent.
The following list of 7 female award winning authors are the more recent winners, from 1996 – 2015.
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So our first author is a name you should be familiar with. Toni Morrison has not only won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but the Pulitzer as well.
Born in Ohio, her first novel was ‘The Bluest Eye’, telling the story of a black girl who believes her life would be better if only she had blue eyes. She has gone on to win prize after prize after prize for her works mostly focusing on black women.
Her novel ‘Beloved’ was a bestseller and went on to become a feature film.
Book Recommendation: ‘God Help the Child’ (2015)
‘Beloved’ is Toni Morrison’s most famous and widely read work. After that, every single one of her books is exquisitely written but divides audiences. So I chose her most recent work to recommend to you.
Sweetness finds it hard to love her daughter, Bride, as she is supposed to. Then, years later, all grown up and beautiful, Bride finds it hard to love her man, Booker, because of the issues of her past. Booker can’t understand her, and has his own past to deal with.
The book explores the ways in which parents can damage their children, and how this continues on down through the generations.
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This female award winning writer was a poet and essayist. She passed away in 2012 in Krakow, having published poetry collections every few years from 1952 right up to the year she died.
She was well loved and widely read in her native Poland, and after winning the prize she shot onto the world stage. She writes poems that get straight to the heart of the matter, shunning overblown ‘poetic’ language in favour of simple, stark truths (find a link to one of her poems here).
The Nobel Academy praised her “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
Book Recommendation – ‘Poems: New and Collected’ (2000)
Sometimes with great poets it is simplest to get acquainted with them through a ‘collected works’ volume. This book contains poetry spanning most of her career, from 1957‐1997. You can read it through and see her style evolve. What’s more satisfying than that?
Beautifully translated to English by two translators who won the 1996 PEN Translation Prize, you know you are getting the best possible English version of her original work.
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Jelinek is an Austrian novelist, playwrite and poet. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her ‘extraordinary linguistic zeal, which reveals the absurdity of society’s clichés’.
Her writing is feminist, political and very critical of society as a whole. She lives in seclusion and suffers from a social phobia. She was unable to collect her award in person.
Perhaps this need to stay outside of everyday society gives her the ability to view it from a different angle, giving her work its power.
Book Recommendation: ‘Greed’ (2008)
A country policeman, Kurt Janisch is ambitious and frustrated. He eases his boredom by meeting middle aged, lonely women of means. Things begin to unwind, and go from bad to worse in the snowy Austrian mountains.
This is one of her more accessible novels. It is essentially a thriller, but no Nobel Prize winner would ever write a simple thriller. It has depth and courage. It encompasses vast themes from the ecological cost of affluence, to the selfish nature of relationships.
Born to British parents in Iran, she had a difficult childhood. The family moved to Zimbabwe in search of wealth, but didn’t find it, and her mother sent her off to a convent school where the children were threatened with damnation and hell. Most of her education came later through wide reading.
She wrote over 50 books and won multiple awards before she died in 2013. Her writing was widely appreciated and the Nobel Society called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.
Find a lovely dedication piece from the Guardian here, published shortly after her death.
Book Recommendation: ‘On Cats’ (2008)
Being a bit of a feline enthusiast myself, I am immediately a fan of any author who writes a collection completely dedicated to the lives and intrigues of cats.
Despite her life‐long love of cats, she is unsentimental. She includes some upsetting stories from her childhood in Africa, being surrounded by lots of wild cats that needed to be exterminated. But alongside these tragedies are touching stories of cats she herself owned.
A book on cats could be twee and fuzzy, but this isn’t. She doesn’t treat them as little cute kitten teddy bears, but as animals, with all of their gifts and failings.
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Herta Muller was born in Romania. She has led a fascinating life, receiving death threats after she refused to become an informant during the Ceausescu regime.
The Nobel Society gave her the award because “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose” she “depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”.
She does focus a lot of her writing on life under the Ceausescu regime. I myself know next to nothing about the history of Romania and so I would use her writing is a gripping and invaluable educational tool.
Read a fantastic (and lengthy) interview by the Paris Review.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Appointment’ (2011)
A clothing factory worker has been summoned. Not to a standard interrogation, she knows, because she has been sewing ‘Marry Me’ and her name and address into men’s suits to be shipped abroad. She is that desperate to get out of the country.
This novel is a stark portrayal of the terrors and struggles of life under totalitarianism. Her writing is unflinching and direct.
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One of the masters of the modern short story, Alice Munro is studied on Creative Writing courses everywhere. In the short‐story world, there is nobody who does not know her name, but because she has mostly stuck to that (underappreciated) form, the wider world had rarely heard of her until she won the Man Booker International in 2009.
Back in 2005 TIME magazine declared that it was time she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. She had to wait until 2013 for that honour, at the age of 82.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Love of a Good Woman’ (1999)
Something Munro is famous for is her use of time. She can stretch it out or jump around in it at will, without confusing or diluting the narrative. This collection is a classic example of this.
In one story, a man and a woman look back 40 years to the summer they first met. In another, one young girl’s perspective on life is changed in the course of a single evening. In the title story she brings an entire town’s characters into focus as they respond to (or are involved in) the death of a local optometrist.
A fantastic collection from one of the best short story writers. Ever.
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This year’s winner is slightly different from the writers above, as she doesn’t write any poetry or fiction. She is a Belarusian investigative journalist and non‐fiction prose writer. What she does with non‐fiction, however, is as fantastical and haunting as any novel.
She writes books compiled of multiple first‐hand accounts. She records the stories in the tellers’ own voices, and gives a multi‐faceted impression of important, often tragic events.
Her books can take up to 10 years to complete, and so her response to winning the prize was to say that now she has the financial freedom to work on her next two ideas (more on her response in this piece from The Guardian).
So there is much more to come from this inspirational woman.
Book Recommendation: ‘Voices from Chernobyl – The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster’ (2005)
This book brings the Chernobyl disaster to life, through first‐hand accounts of those who lived there and witnessed it. It won’t be what you would call an ‘enjoyable’ read, but it is compelling, it is horrifying at times and illuminating.
It is important because of the author’s loyalty to each person’s individual voice and story. We are hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. An extremely important historical document that I’m sure will be included on any study of Nuclear Disasters for decades to come.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Nobel Society would go whole decades between awarding a Literary prize to a woman. Now it is only a few years between each one.
Let’s hope this trend continues and that in the years to come we see the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th female Nobel Prize winning authors.
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