PHILIP GOUREVITCH, reacting (see 1 below) on the website of The New Yorker to the English betting parlor Ladbrokes' shortlist of favorites to win the 2014 Nobel in literature:
But the really sensational news about this year’s race, regardless of who wins, is the third-place candidate: Svetlana Alexievich. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that Alexievich was on the list; and it could have been a very small downy feather when the word came that she was among the frontrunners. Can you believe it? Alexievich? 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.
It hasn’t always been this bad. The second writer to win the Nobel, back in 1902, was Theodor Mommsen, the first of several historians and essayists to win the prize. Bertrand Russell was one; Winston Churchill was another. But it has been more than a half century since any such recognition—a half century that has seen an explosion of great documentary writing in all forms and lengths and styles, and yet there is a kind of lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature—to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention by comparison to fiction. The mentality is akin to the prejudice that long held photography at bay in the visual-art world. Gay Talese summed up the experience of such snubbing in an interview with The Paris Review (2) (labelled “the Art of Nonfiction”) by saying, “Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can’t quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off.” And my colleague John McPhee, in his Paris Review interview (3) (under the same rubric), says, “Nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Publishers and booksellers are complicit with other keepers of the canon in the philistine derogation of great documentary writing by reserving the label “literature” on book jackets and store shelves only for works of fancy. But deferring to categories and genres to adjudicate what is meaningful is antithetical to what the best literature does best, which is to respond to life and death with writing that—by its voice and its substance, its soul and its urgency, its truth and, above all, its wisdom—enlarges our understanding and experience of our world and our being.
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(1) "Nonfiction Deserves a Nobel," Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
(2) "Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction," The Paris Review
(3) "John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction," The Paris Review