Annie Ernaux Wins Nobel Prize in Literature for Her Unabashed Autobiographical Writing

The French author is the 17th woman to win the prize

French writer Annie Ernaux
French writer Annie Ernaux hoto by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

The Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday to French author Annie Ernaux, citing the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

The academy had not been able to reach Ernaux by phone the time Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced the award at a news conference in Stockholm. She found out when she heard the news on the radio, and stepped outside of her suburban Paris home to speak briefly with reporters on Thursday afternoon, reports Reuters. “I am very happy,” she said in French. “I am proud. And that’s it.”

Ernaux, 82, has written over 20 books since the 1970s. Her work is lauded for its blistering honesty; the author has recounted her first sexual experiences, an illegal abortion, a passionate extramarital affair and the death of her parents, among other things. For years, the literary community has regarded Ernaux as a favorite for the accolade, which is awarded to an author for their entire body of work and is widely considered to be the greatest honor a writer can achieve.

“Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean,” said Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel literature committee, during the award announcement. “And when she ... reveals the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are, she has achieved something admirable and enduring.”

Born in rural Normandy in 1940, Ernaux grew up in a working class family. She studied at Rouen University to become a school teacher, and she wrote her first novel in college. But publishers rejected it for being “too ambitious,” she told the New York Times’ Laura Cappelle in 2020. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s, married with two kids, that she took up writing again.

In her debut, 1974’s Cleaned Out, Ernaux recounts her humble youth and her back-alley abortion, which she had in secret while the procedure was still illegal in France. Her breakthrough into the mainstream came with her fourth book, A Man’s Place. Published in 1983, the short book explores her father’s life and their relationship.

Internationally, Ernaux is best known for The Years. Published in 2008, the creative memoir documents her own life and French society at large from the 1940s to the 2000s. Notably, Ernaux wrote The Years in third person, rather than first person. Critics have also celebrated Happening, Ernaux’s 2000 book that delves into further detail about the illegal abortion she had at 23. Last year, the book was adapted as a feature-length film.

Speaking after the award announcement, Olsson described Ernaux as an honest writer who is “not afraid to confront the hard truths,” per David Keyton, Jill Lawless and Masha Macpherson of the Associated Press (AP).

“She writes about things that no one else writes about, for instance her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover and so forth. I mean, really hard experiences,” he said. “And she gives words for these experiences that are very simple and striking. They are short books, but they are really moving.”

Audrey Diwan, the French film director of Happening, tells the New York Times Cappelle that Ernaux’s writing “speaks to so many and becomes a ‘we,’ a collective voice beyond borders.” The accolade, she adds, “turns a well-deserved spotlight on an immense body of work.”

Of 119 people to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ernaux is only the 17th woman and the first French woman. She joins over a dozen French writers who have been honored with the award.

The Swedish Academy has been criticized over the years for failing to recognize a diverse range of writers: Including Ermaux, 96 of the past 119 Nobel literature laureates have been either European or North American. The organization is working to broaden its scope, Olsson tells the AP, but “it is the quality that counts, ultimately.” 

Last year, the Nobel went to Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” American poet Louise Glück won the award in 2020. The prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor, which is almost $900,000.