The Literary Olympics: Our Nobel Prize Showdown

World literature is a conversation, in which writers from all over the world influence each other’s work and connect as friends, enemies, lovers, and competitors. And there’s no better celebration of the world of international literature than the Nobel Prize in literature, the ultimate lifetime achievement award for authors and poets.

The Nobel Prize is an individual achievement, but just for fun, we’ve decided to make it a  matter of national pride. We’re running down the list of history’s big Nobel winners and staging a literary olympics between all the countries of the world. Check out the top performers below!

Depending on how you count authors from multiple countries, you’ll get slightly different figures. For our purposes, we’re using the author’s home country at the time of the award. That gives credit for émigré authors to their adopted countries, giving us slightly higher numbers for the leaders than Wikipedia has (though the order remains the same). Let the games begin!


The Podium

First Place


Medal Count: 17

France absolutely dominates the Literary Olympics, taking more than half again as many medals home as the second-place countries. France has some impressive homegrown talent in Patrick Modiano, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Andre Gide, but they also benefit from being the home of expatriates like Samuel Beckett (born in Ireland), Ivan Bunin (born in Russia), and Gao Xingjian (born in China). The very first Nobel Prize in literature went home to France (Sully Prudhomme, 1901), and so did the most recent (Patrick Modiano, 2014). France’s diverse group even includes authors who write in languages besides French.


Second Place (tie)

United Kingdom

Medal Count: 11

The United Kingdom boasts some of the most recognizable Nobel laureates in history, including Rudyard Kipling (1907), George Bernard Shaw (1925), and even Sir Winston Churchill (1953 – and yes, this is that Churchill).

The UK’s impressive list of winners also includes the American-born T.S. Eliot. If only the States had been able to hold onto him, they’d have second place all to their own. Of course, they’re already lucky that France or Spain didn’t steal Hemingway for good.


Second Place (tie)

United States of America

Medal Count: 11

The United States has won just as many Nobel Prizes in literature as the UK has. Unfortunately for the Yanks, our tiebreaker was alphabetical order!

The United States started slow but has been surging since the interwar period. France had four prizes and the United Kingdom had two before the United States got their first in 1930 (Sinclair Lewis). But America collected two more in the decade (Eugene O’Neill, 1936 and Pearl S. Buck, 1938) to the UK’s one, tying things up. America’s top performers include William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), and John Steinbeck (1962).


The Runners-Up

Fourth Place (tie)


Medal Count: 8

Germany’s impressive slate of winners includes Thomas Mann (1929) and Heinrich Böll (1972, representing West Germany). Günter Grass (1999’s winner) died earlier this year, but Germany still has a living laureate in Herta Müller, who won in 2009. Müller is still writing!


Fourth Place (tie)


Medal Count: 8

Score one (or eight) for the home team! Sweden is the country that gives out the Nobel Prizes, so it’s good to see them win a few for the home crowd. Sweden’s best year came in 1974, when they won twice in the same year (Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson). Technically, the prize was “divided equally,” so you could argue that Sweden’s medal count should be 7 instead of 8 – we’re giving them a little home field advantage here.


Sixth Place


Medal Count: 6

Italy has two Nobel-winning poets (Salvatore Quasimodo, 1959 and Eugenio Montale, 1975) in its corner. Quasimodo, like Germany’s Günter Grass, wrestled with his home country’s World War II legacy in his work. Dario Fo (1997) was Italy’s most recent winner.


Seventh Place


Medal Count: 5

Lots of countries have three or four Nobel laureates, but only Spain has five. The man who made the difference was Camilo José Cela, who won in 1989. Spain gains another medal if you’re counting by country of birth (that would bring home Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won in 1959 for Puerto Rico). That’s why Wikipedia has them tied with Italy. We’re not that generous.