Women Nobel Prize Winners We Love

11th Oct 2013

This week, Alice Munro became the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. We're taking a closer look at the other literary trailblazers to receive the award...


Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Alice Munro

Year: 2013

The Nobel Rationale: A “master of the contemporary short story”.

What She Says: “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness.”

Key Work: Runaway – the 2004 collection that won the Giller Prize echoes with strains of what Munro does best, namely observational prose that mirrors the intimate details of everyday life.


Herta Muller

Herta Müller

Year: 2009

The Nobel Rationale: “Who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

What She Says: “I started to write, because there was no other ways for me to express, except through the vicious cycle of words.”

Key Work: Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel) – an epic prose poem that explores the persecution of ethnic Germans in Romania under Stalin’s USSR; Müller was commended for her portrayal of the starkness of the forced labour concentration camps.


Dorris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Year: 2007

The Nobel Rationale: “That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

What She Says: “Writing can’t be a way of life – the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”

Key Work: The Grass is Singing – simultaneously an understated social critique and an exploration of the human conflict, Lessing’s novel is set amongst the racial strife of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).


Elfrieda  Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek

Year: 2004

The Nobel Rationale: “For her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

What She Says: “Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face.”

Key Work: Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher) – sexual and emotional repression are the catalyst for a searingly shocking tale of desire, fear and self-loathing.


Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska

Year: 1996

The Nobel Rationale: “I would like readers to perceive all of my poems as their own, as written to them. Because a poem belongs to you who read it, and it is to you that I dedicate what I write.”

What She Says: “Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t got even that much, however loveless and boring–this is one of the harshest human miseries.”

Key Work: Chwila (Moment) – almost a philosophical treatise, this collection of poems questions the omnipresence of death, viewing moments as if they are overshadowed.



Toni Morrison

Year: 1993

The Nobel Rationale: “Who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

What She Says: “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Key Work: Beloved – inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, Marrison’s novel is a considered a memorial to those enslaved before Americas Civil war and a seminal piece of African-American literature.


Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

Year: 1991

The Nobel Rationale: “Who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity.”

What She Says: “Your whole life you are really writing one book, which is an attempt to grasp the consciousness of your time and place– a single book written from different stages of your ability.”

Key Work: July’s People – banned in South Africa after its publication, Gordimer’s novel predicts how she thought apartheid would end.


Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs

Year: 1966

The Nobel Rationale: “For her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.”

What She Says: “We breathed the air of freedom without knowing the language or any person.”

Key Work: Collected Poems 1944-1949 – intensely lyrical, these poems (written in Stockholm after her flight from Berlin) mirror the grief yearning she often spoke of following the persecution of the Jews in 1940s Europe.


Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral

Year: 1945

The Nobel Rationale: “For her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”

What She Says: “I write poetry because I can’t disobey the impulse; it would be like blocking a spring that surges up in my throat.”

Key Work: Madwomen: The “Locas mujeres” Poems of Gabriela Mistral – one of the most important of the Latin American poets, this collection encapsulates the dichotomy of being dismissed as mad when the situation could never prompt a sane response.


Pearl BuckPearl Buck

Year: 1938

The Nobel Rationale: “For her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

What She Says: “Let woman out of the home, let man into it, should be the aim of education. The home needs man, and the world outside needs woman.”

Key Work: The Good Earth – the dramatization of family life in a rural Chinese village, Buck’s novel did a great deal to humanise the Chinese for the Americans of the 1930s.


Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

Year: 1928

The Nobel Rationale: “Principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”

What She Says: “One cannot escape dogmas—those who hold most firmly to dogmas today are those whose only dogma is that dogmas should be feared like the plague.”

Key Work: Kristin Lavransdatter – a trilogy of novels following a Norwegian woman in the Middle Ages, Undset was controversial in her explicit depiction of female sexuality.


Grazia Deledda

Grazia Deledda

Year: 1926

The Nobel Rationale: “For her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”

What She Says: “Our great anguish is life’s slow death. This is why we must try to slow life down, to intensify it, thus giving it the richest possible meaning. One must try to live above one’s life, as a cloud above the sea.”

Key Work: Dopo Il Divorzio (After the Divorce) – the desperate affair of Giovanna with her ex-husband after poverty forces her to marry again, highlights the destructive nature of forbidden love.


Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf

Year: 1909

The Nobel Rationale: “In appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.”

What She Says: “No one is able to enjoy such feast than the one who throws a party in his own mind.”

Key Work: Gösta Berling’s Saga – a startlingly vivid début novel that absorbs echo Swedish folk tales into its narrative to give a sense of magical realism.

Which  women Nobel Prize winners will you be investigating first?

(Image via Moyan_Brenn)


  • Ayana says:

    Hooray Alice Munro!
    Ashamed to say I’ve not heard of all these ladies, excited to check them out though.

    That 25 year gap between Nelly Sachs and Nadine Gordimer is SHAMEFUL! If only FBS had been around then

    • Beulah Devaney says:

      Agreed! We’ve got a biog of Pearl Buck on the site but I almost didn’t have it on here because it sounded too niche – as Ali said on twitter “Screw niche – all women writers should be mainstream!!”