Should nonfiction be considered literature? The Nobel Committee thinks so

The World
svetlana

Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich (front) walks out after attending a news conference in Minsk, Belarus, October 8, 2015. Alexievich has won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her portrayal of life in the former Soviet Union, which the Swedish Academy said was "a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

It was no surprise to literary insiders that Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich picked up the Nobel Prize for literature.

She had been shortlisted last year; she was high up on the short list again this year. But what was surprising to New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch is the fact that Alexievich, a journalist by trade, picked up the Nobel Prize in literature. Non-fiction. As literature.

A year ago Gourevitch wrote about Alexievich’s inclusion on the Nobel Prize shortlist in the New Yorker. "Can you believe it? Alexievich?” he wrote. “Don't they know that she's a reporter? Is it possible that the Nobel committee might finally reverse the ignoble treatment of what we call nonfiction writing and admit that it is literature?"

“For years, publishers used the label to mean only fiction, even when it’s written by a novelist. If you’re writing nonfiction you are usually filed by topic. She would be Russia or Soviet and not on the shelf called literature. I often compare it to the way in which for many years the art world treated photography as a sort of a dubious thing they called art,” says Gourevitch.

Alexievich’s writing is anything but traditional news reporting — not that that shouldn’t be considered literature as well. She writes in a genre described as the "collective-novel."

“She basically started to feel that daily journalism, the habits of conventional newspapering, were really not adequate to the intensity and strangeness of the Soviet and then later on as she got older to the post-Soviet reality,” Gourevitch says.

She started to develop a combination of prose reportage form and oral history form that drew heavily on detailed, intimate interviews with people who were being buffeted about by history.

Her most prominent works translated into English are “Zinky Boys” a collection of accounts from Russian veterans of the Afghanistan War and “Voices from Chernobyl,” which documents the years following the nuclear disaster there.

Gourevitch met Alexievich a few years ago at panel in New York on writing about catastrophe. He still has the transcript from the panel in which she spoke about Chernobyl. 

“Imagine this incredibly crazy picture,” Alexievich said at the panel. “A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to make sure she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat; they buried bread. It was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects.”

And then Alexievich said something that Gourevitch can’t forget. “Everyone who was involved [in Chernobyl] turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation," she said.

Belarusian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov told The Guardian newspaper today that Alexeivich writes about the history of the Communist "Red Man.” “She claims he is not gone,” Sannikov said. “She argues that this man is inside us, inside every Soviet person.”

At the press conference this morning in Minsk, Alexievich blasted the Russian goverment and the Belarusian president for belonging to a “Russian world” that she doesn’t approve of.

In fact, Alexievich has spent years in and out of exile from Belarus. However, she doesn’t subscribe to one particular ideology, Gourevitch says.

“She really writes about the gigantic, historical and mental upheaval that were the Soviet and post-Soviet experience,” says Gourevitch.

And unlike some Nobel Prize winners, Alexievich’s writing is actually an accessible, engaging read.