The selection of Pamuk, whose recent trial for "insulting Turkishness" raised concerns about free speech in Turkey, continues a trend among Nobel judges of picking writers in conflict with their own governments. British playwright Harold Pinter, a strong opponent of his country's involvement in the Iraq war, won last year. Elfriede Jelinek, a longtime critic of Austria's conservative politicians and social class, was the 2004 winner.
Pamuk, currently a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that he was "happy and honored" to win.
"I am very satisfied," he said. "I will try to recover from this shock."
Earlier this year, Pamuk had spoken dismissively of the Nobel.
"I really don't like this Nobel literature thing and nonsense," Pamuk had told CNN-Turk television. "I've always said that I am not interested in it, it is not something that is on my mind."
"I have always thought that he's one of the most extraordinary and original artists of our time," Maureen Freely, who has translated Pamuk's works into English, told CBS Radio News.
Pamuk, whose novels include "Snow" and "My Name is Red," was charged last year for telling a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that Turkey was unwilling to deal with two of the most painful episodes in recent Turkish history: the massacre of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide, and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.
"Thirty-thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it," he said in the interview.
The controversy came at a particularly sensitive time for the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Turkey had recently begun membership talks with the European Union, which has harshly criticized the trial.
The charges against Pamuk were dropped in January, ending the high-profile trial that outraged Western observers.
"He was destined for the Nobel Prize because of the way in which his writing was local and international at the same time, and I thought that he deserved it, but when he was put on trial last year, I thought that made him far too controversial," Freely said.
The Swedish Academy said that the 54-year-old Istanbul-born Pamuk "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."
In Turkey, fellow novelists, poets and publishers were among the first to congratulate Pamuk, but nationalists who regard the novelist as a traitor accused the Swedish Academy of rewarding the author because he had belittled Turks.
"The prize came as no surprise, we were expecting it," said Kemal Kerincsiz, a nationalist lawyer who helped bring charges against Pamuk. "This prize was not given because of Pamuk's books, it was given because of his words, because of his Armenian genocide claims."
"I don't think that the choice was political. I think it will be discussed as political, and I think it will have a political impact as so much of he's done in the past has done," Free told CBS News.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry congratulated Pamuk, wishing him continued success and saying the prize would help give Turkish literature a wider audience abroad.
Academy head Horace Engdahl said Pamuk's political situation in Turkey had not affected the decision.
"It could, of course, lead to some political turbulence, but we are not interested in that," Engdahl said. "He is a controversial person in his own country, but on the other hand, so are almost all of our prize winners."
He said Pamuk was selected because he had "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture.
"This means that he has stolen the novel, one can say, from us Westerners and has transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before," Engdahl said.
Pamuk himself had little religious upbringing. Growing up in Istanbul, his extended family was wealthy and privileged — his grandfather was an industrialist and built trains for the new nation. Religion, Pamuk has said, was considered to be something for the poor and the provincial.
Instead, Pamuk was educated at the American school, Robert College, founded in the 1860s by secular Americans, where half the classes were taught in English. Among the Turkish graduates are prime ministers and corporate executives.
In winning the prize, Pamuk will likely see new interest in his work, although there was little increase in sales for Jelinek and Pinter. Pamuk will also receive a $1.4 million check, a gold medal and diploma, and an invitation to a lavish banquet in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of prize founder Alfred Nobel.