In what ways do the winners of these three awards differ?

I'm surprised there is not more overlap when surveying the results.

I understand that there are some variations in criteria between the three. I'm wondering more whether one award tends more toward popular fiction, or toward experimental cutting edge novels, or if they occasionally are handed out as "lifetime achievement" awards even if they are not labelled as such.

1 Answer 1


In what ways do the winners of these three awards differ?

These three awards are very different, and it's rare that an author collects more than one of the three. The most obvious difference is the Nobel Laureate is a person, whereas the winners of the National Book Awards (NBA) and the Booker Prize are literary works (although the NBA introduced a lifetime achievement award in 1988). The other obvious difference is geography: the Nobel is a Swedish award but granted globally, the NBA is a U.S. award and the Booker is a British award. All three awards are longstanding but the Booker is the relative newcomer. The Booker Prize is only awarded for novels whereas the other two awards cover a range of literary forms.

Nobel Prize in Literature

This prize is awarded by the Swedish Academy, and has been awarded annually since 1901. It is effectively a "lifetime achievement" award as it's based on the author's entire body of work, although in a small number of cases a specific work is singled out in the award statement. It covers the full gamut of literary formats and genres, including novels and short stories, poetry, drama, screenplays, non-fiction (essays, history, literary criticism, philology, philosophy, biography, memoirs, translations) and – with Bob Dylan's 2016 award – songwriting; and all nationalities are eligible. In fact, one Nobel Laureate is even classed as stateless (Ivan Bunin, 1933).

It is the world's most prestigious literature prize, but has often been criticised as inherently political and heavily Eurocentric. It has an excessively Scandinavian focus (16 of the 114 awarded up to 2018), with more Swedish writers (8) than from all of Asia (China 2, Japan 2, India 1) or Latin America (6); and it has overlooked many of the world's greatest writers, such as Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola, Henry James, André Malraux, W.H. Auden, Philip Roth and Jorge Luis Borges. Wikipedia gives the following as an example of the dubious quality of the award decision-making:

In 1974, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were considered but rejected in favor of a joint award for Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both members of the Swedish Academy at the time, and unknown outside their home country. Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976; neither Greene nor Nabokov was awarded it.

For more detail on the (many) criticisms, see here.

National Book Award

The NBA is a set of U.S.A. literary awards established by the book industry in 1936 (and, after a WW2 hiatus, reestablished in 1950) and administered since 1988 by the National Book Foundation whose mission is "to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture." There are five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people's literature.

From 1988 a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters has been awarded annually to someone who "has enriched [U.S.] literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work." This lifetime achievement award is therefore an equivalent to the Nobel Prize for Literature except that it's restricted to one nation only, the U.S.A.

Man Booker Prize for Fiction

A relative newcomer - first awarded in 1969 - the Booker Prize was established by a major U.K. food company called Booker, McConnell Ltd. Administration of the prize was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation in 2002 and it became the Man Booker Prize (Man Group being the new sponsor). It's awarded to English-language novels only, and was restricted to books written by Commonwealth (plus Irish, South African and Zimbabwean) citizens, but controversially has been expanded since 2014 to include all nationalities.

A "lifetime" award – the Man Booker International Prize – existed fleetingly between 2004 and 2015 and was awarded to 6 authors: Ismail Kadare, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro, Philip Roth, Lydia Davis and László Krasznahorkai. Unfortunately, just when it looked like it might become a worthy alternative to the controversy-riddled Nobel Prize, it was reconfigured to be an award for a single book in English translation, with the prize shared between author and translator.

Crossover between awards

The following Nobel Laureates have won the Booker Prize:

  • William Golding (U.K.): Nobel 1983, Booker 1980 for Rites of Passage;
  • Nadine Gordimer (South Africa): Nobel 1991, Booker 1974 for The Conservationist;
  • V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad & Tobago; U.K.): Nobel 2001, Booker 1971 for In a Free State, finalist 1979);
  • J. M. Coetzee (South Africa; Australia): Nobel 2003, Booker 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K and 1999 for Disgrace, finalist 2009;
  • Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan; U.K.): Nobel 2017, Booker 1989 with The Remains of the Day, finalist 1986, 2000 & 2005.

The following Nobel Laureates have been Booker finalists only:

  • Patrick White (Australia): Nobel 1973, Booker finalist 1970;
  • Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe; U.K.): Nobel 2007, Booker finalist 1971, 1981 & 1985;
  • Alice Munro (Canada): Nobel 2013, Booker finalist 1980.

Only two U.S. authors have ever won a Booker Prize: Paul Beatty for The Sellout (2016) and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). Neither has won an NBA or Nobel; Saunders was an NBA Fiction finalist in 2013 for Tenth of December: Stories.

Philip Roth won the Man Booker International Prize in 2011 and the NBA's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2002, but hasn't won the Nobel. He has won the NBA Fiction Award twice, in 1960 for Goodbye, Columbus and in 1995 for Sabbath's Theater. He was a finalist in 1975 (My Life As a Man), 1980 (The Ghost Writer), 1984 (The Anatomy Lesson) and 1987 (The Counterlife).

Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and was a NBA Fiction Award finalist in 2007 with Varieties of Disturbance, but hasn't won any of the other awards.

Two Nobel Laureates have won the NBA's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: Saul Bellow (Nobel 1976, NBA Medal 1990) and Toni Morrison (Nobel 1993, NBA Medal 1996).

The following Nobel Laureates have won the NBA's Fiction Award:

  • William Faulkner (Nobel 1949, NBA 1951 for Collected Stories of William Faulkner and 1955 for A Fable; NBA finalist 1952 & 1960);
  • John Steinbeck (Nobel 1962, NBA 1939 for The Grapes of Wrath; NBA finalist 1953 & 1955);
  • Saul Bellow (Nobel 1976, NBA 1954 for The Adventures of Augie March, 1965 for Herzog and 1971 for Mr. Sammler's Planet; finalist 1957, 1960 & 1976);
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer (Nobel 1978, NBA 1974 for A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories; NBA finalist 1962, 1965, 1973).

Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel in 1954 and was an NBA Fiction Award finalist in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea. Toni Morrison won the Nobel 1993 and was an NBA finalist in 1975 & 1987.

Other notable awards

It would be remiss of me not to mention the main competitors to each of the three literary awards you've singled out.

Alternatives to the Booker Prize:

James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Britain's oldest literary awards (founded in 1919), there are three prize categories: fiction, drama and biography. It's administered by the University of Edinburgh (Scotland, U.K.), and the annual winners are chosen by the Professor of English Literature at the University, assisted in the shortlisting process by postgraduate students, which is seen to give the decision both impartiality and a degree of gravitas. The work must have been written in English (or Gaelic or Welsh for drama) and published/performed in Britain, but there's no author nationality restriction: recent American winners in the Fiction category have included Padgett Powell (You and I, 2011), Tatjana Soli (The Lotus Eaters, 2010), Cormac McCarthy (The Road, 2006) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, 2002).

International DUBLIN Literary Award
This is one of the richest literary prizes in the world, and was first awarded in 1996. It's administered by Dublin City Public Libraries (Ireland), the nominations are submitted each year by public libraries from around the world, and the shortlist and winner are selected by an international panel which changes each year. There's no nationality restriction, but it's restricted to novels published in English or in an English translation. The shortlist is an annual "must-read" guide.

Alternatives to the National Book Awards:

Pulitzer Prize
Established in 1917 and administered by Columbia University (New York City, NY, USA), there are annual prizes in 21 categories, of which 14 relate to journalism, the remainder being for Fiction, Drama, History, (Auto)Biography, Poetry, General Non-Fiction, and Music. Eligibility is restricted to American authors. Nobel Laureates who've won a Pulitzer include Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison (all for Fiction) and Eugene O'Neill (Drama Prize); and Bob Dylan received a Pulitzer Citation for Music in 2008.

Alternatives to the Nobel Prize:

America Award in Literature
This is a lifetime achievement literary award for international writers, and was first presented in 1994; there is no nationality requirement nor any prize money. The rotating jury is drawn from a judging panel of "American poets, prose writers, playwrights and literary critics". Of the 24 winners, only 3 are from the USA and 2 from the U.K., so it would appear there's no anglophone bias, and there's a broad mix of novelists, poets and dramatists within the winners' list.

  • 2
    Great research!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 12:55

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