An Unconventional Nobel Laureate

Black and white photo of a woman holding her chin in her hand and looking away from the camera.

Have you ever found yourself looking at the heteronormative sausage-fest that is the Nobel Prize lineup and said, “I wonder if the hoity-toity Swedish Academy will ever give the Literature Nobel to a genre-bending disabled lesbian children’s book author?” Funny you should ask.

Let me introduce you to Selma Lagerlöf, a Nobel-winning, disabled, Swedish, cross-genre, lady-loving author. “Well,” you say, “at last! Progress! We live in a more inclusive time! Surely, we will no longer have years when the Nobel Prizes are awarded exclusively to men! It is no longer 1901! Or 1904-05, 1906-08, 1910, 1912-1925, 1927, 1929-30, 1932-34, 1936-37, 1939, 1948-1962, 1965, 1967-75, 1978, 1980-81, 1984-85, 1987, 1989-90, 1994, 1998-2002, 2005-6, 2010, 2012, or even 2016—you know, those seventy-five non-consecutive years where no women at all were awarded any Nobels in any category.” It is still, in fact, 2016, but I don’t correct you because I am a good friend and because you are a rhetorical device.

But that edgy, innovative Swedish writer is not someone who you’ll see in pictures from this year’s Nobel banquet, sitting next to an astonished-looking king of Sweden (his face always does that), singing drinking-songs while pounding shots of schnapps, as is the Swedish way. Selma Lagerlöf, in fact, won the Nobel prize in literature in 1909, and was the first woman to ever do so.

Born and raised in rural Sweden, Selma contracted a mysterious childhood illness which affected the development of her legs and hips and which would trouble her for the rest of her life. Despite her father’s opposition, Lagerlöf pursued her education, eventually becoming a school teacher and a writer. She garnered considerable critical and commercial success with the publication of her first book, Gösta Berling’s Saga, which was considered by many of her contemporaries to be one of the best Swedish novels ever written.

Though Lagerlöf wrote many innovative and critically well-received novels for adults, in the modern era she is perhaps best remembered for her children’s book Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, which tells the story of a naughty boy who is shrunk by an elf and then travels around Sweden on the back of a goose. Until just a few weeks ago, Sweden’s twenty-krona bill had Selma’s portrait on one side and on the other side a goose with a tiny rider flying over rolling farmland. However, the twenty has recently been redesigned and Selma’s portrait has been replaced with that other powerhouse of Swedish literature, Astrid Lindgren.

Just a few days ago I had the chance to ask a Swedish children’s librarian, and a very well-read Swedish teenager for their opinions of Selma Lagerlöf—to my surprise neither of them had read any of her work, though they had both heard of her. The librarian knew biographical details, and the teen said she had received an illustrated edition as a gift, but neither had actually read any of Lagerlöf’s writing. Turns out that winning the Nobel in Literature doesn’t guarantee you a readership, at least not a hundred years later. Perhaps there is some comfort in that. Maybe Nobel Prizes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

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