Skip to main content
Menu
USA! USA! US … Oh, Never Mind. It’s The Literature Nobel.

UPDATE (Oct. 13, 7:30 a.m.): We have an American! Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”


The Nobel Prize in Literature has a reputation for being, if not exactly anti-American, then certainly happy to ignore America in a shade-throwing sort of way. And there may be some truth to that. Of all the Nobels, the literature prize is the only one where Americans do not carry a plurality of the winners’ list.1 We make up 60 percent of winners in economic sciences; 33 percent in physics; 33 percent in physiology or medicine; 30 percent in chemistry, and 19 percent in peace. By contrast, just 7 percent of the 112 literature winners since the award was established in 1901 were born in the U.S. France is the winningest country, with 12 wins and 11 percent of the share of winners. The U.S. has not won a Nobel in literature since Toni Morrison won in 1993.

At FiveThirtyEight, we’ve been looking at demographic statistics for laureates of all six Nobel prizes. You can read our previous posts on the typical winners in chemistry, economics (not technically a Nobel), peace, physics and physiology/medicine as well.2 With the winner of the 2016 literature Nobel due to be announced Thursday, we now turn our attention to this prize, which is demographically consistent with the others in some ways — 88 percent of the winners are male, and the average age of a winner is 65 — but strongly divergent on nationality.3 It’s not just that Americans don’t dominate this Nobel as they do the others. In general, the literature award is the prize least dominated by any one nationality. The share of nationalities with a single win is higher for this award than for any other Nobel Prize.

NOBEL PRIZE FOR … NO. OF COUNTRIES WITH ONE LAUREATE SHARE OF LAUREATES FROM SINGLE-WIN COUNTRIES
Literature 25 22%
Peace 26 20
Economics 11 15
Chemistry 21 12
Physics 15 8
Physiology or Medicine 11 5
The Nobel for Literature’s distribution across countries

Source: Nobel Foundation

And the literature Nobel is also a great example of another little nationality quirk in the Nobel data — the island nation of St. Lucia. With one literature win — Derek Walcott in 1992 — and one economics win — Sir Arthur Lewis, 1979 — St. Lucia has the distinction of being the country with the most Nobels per capita. Of the 900 Nobels handed out from 1901 through 2015, the U.S. has won 257. With a 2015 population of 323,995,528, that works out to a little less than one Nobel Prize for every million Americans. St. Lucia, in contrast, had a 2015 population of 184,999, and a win rate of nearly 11 prizes per million people. Given France’s strong showing in the literature Nobel tally, I was at first tempted to assume that the St. Lucia win was an outgrowth of French colonialism. But that’s probably wrong. Although it was first colonized by France, the island was a British colony from 1814 to 1979, when it achieved independence, and Walcott writes in English.


If you’ve enjoyed (or been furiously annoyed by) our Nobel coverage, you might want to dive into the data on your own. The Nobel Foundation has an API that will allow you to run your own comparisons of demographic data for Nobel laureates.

Footnotes

  1. As previously noted, nonhuman entities carry the plurality on peace, but Americans are first among humans.

  2. We pulled data from the website of the Nobel Foundation, which has fact pages for each winner, and we focused on age at the time of winning, sex of the winners, their countries of birth and their primary institutional affiliations at the time their prizes were won (some had additional affiliations that we did not count). When multiple people shared a Nobel, we counted all the winners equally. Age is averaged. For the other stats, “typical” means “winningest.”

  3. For the other prizes, we also noted the institution with the most winners. But the Nobel Foundation doesn’t track affiliated institutions for literature winners. Many of them clearly were affiliated with an institution at the time of their win — 1992 winner Derek Walcott, for instance, taught at Boston University. But that doesn’t show up on his Nobel Foundation fact page.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments