Why Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize Is Good for Literature

Svetlana Alexievich, nominated by Ural Federal University, has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee, chaired by Per Wästberg, wisely cited the author’s “polyphonic writings,” calling her work — oral histories of lives upended by terrible events — “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

This qualification, I think, is mostly fine, but it won’t do much to sway English-language readers who may feel left in the dark for the second consecutive year. Still, Alexievich’s Nobel Prize should be celebrated instead of shrugged at, even if an appreciation of her work requires dispensing with some of the bromides of American literature and publishing.

One of the facts about Alexievich that is sure to stick with readers today: she is a journalist. And, perhaps with some caveats, she is the first journalist to ever win the prize. But this fact about Alexievich, I fear, will limit the expectations of American readers conditioned to think of famous journalists as information “leakers” or intrepid subverters of power. Not that there is anything wrong with the latter case: Alexievich’s work has challenged power in the post-Soviet world, but not in a loud, pundit-like way. Her method — “from below,” as Keith Gessen, who translated her Voices from Chernobyl, pointed out this morning — is far more threatening. This is why Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus who is currently up for reelection, did not call Alexievich today to congratulate her for receiving literature’s greatest honor.

So, to begin with, we could say that Alexievich’s work, which meticulously records and arranges the voices of otherwise voiceless people — often people who endure the worst of history: World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the Chernobyl disaster — challenges the boundaries of journalism. As a result, reading her work means foregoing, in many senses, the accepted polarities of the field. Her writing doesn’t seek to “account” for these events in a straightforward journalistic way, nor does it attempt to shoehorn an “I” into history, in the style of New Journalism. Finally, as Alexievich herself explained upon winning the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for Voices from Chernobyl, her writing can be separated from journalism that simply provides “information” about states and regimes and events:

I’m not interested in information, information which serves more and more as the foundation for our civilization. I think information has discredited itself as a way of knowing human beings. What I’m interested in is human feelings and human turmoil, to be able to make some kind of a guess about what goes on inside of people, about what has meaning for them and causes them to suffer.

Alexievich’s words, spoken ten years ago, predict and disparage what followed: the rise of the curiously useless profession of data journalism and the life-draining technocracy of austerity. Both, she explains, exploit the quick delivery of information, and both fail to capture what is unquantifiably human:

Right after Chernobyl happened, when I was making my first trips to that region, I saw dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists there. And I said to myself, those guys are going to put their books out really fast, but the book that I’m going to write is going to take years, and, indeed, I worked on the book for ten years. And when I speak of these journalists who were going to put their books out quickly, I’m talking about books that were filled with facts, information, medical information… But the most important things we needed to learn from that event took more time to emerge.

It’s fair to say that Alexievich’s work overturns the expectations of professional journalism, but that doesn’t quite explain why she has been awarded a literary prize. And the fact that many commentators refer to her writing solely as “history” or “journalism” only exacerbates the problem. Nevertheless, her books are not only literary in the best, strongest sense of the word, they also invent (or at least expand) a new genre of literature. Surprisingly, this sentiment was expressed today by the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy — an organization not exactly known for literary nuance. Here, Sara Danius explains the appeal of Alexievich’s work:

For the past 30 or 40 years, she’s been busy mapping the Soviet or post-Soviet individual, but it’s not really a history of events, it’s a history of emotions. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world. So these historical events that she’s covering in her various books, for example the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and so on. These are in a way just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individuals and the post-Soviet individuals. She’s conducted thousands and thousands of interviews with children, with women, and with men. And in this way, she is offering us a history of the human being…a history of the soul, if you wish.

I’m not sure that I would reduce the Chernobyl disaster, in the case of Voices from Chernobyl, to a mere pretext, but what Danius says next does finesse a point that is being glossed today:

Not only is the material that she’s offering us new, but she’s actually devising a new genre, and that’s part of her achievement. It’s a true achievement, not just in terms of material, but in terms of form.

Now, it’s never easy to describe a new genre or form, but I think that Danius is right. Alexievich’s books take several years, sometimes even a decade, to write, and they require all the research work associated with the most complete journalistic practice combined with the highest levels of editorial and curatorial acuity — all in the service of literary-historical moments, stories, or narratives worthy of great art.

But it’s not just narrative; it’s narrative that devotes itself to life, that dignifies individual lives by folding them into a community that is constituted by the book itself. Think of the way that critics talk about the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who is described as having created his self by narrating his life over six volumes. Now imagine not one self (or life) but several — a chorus of selves. And the voices of the chorus, as Gessen explained today, “are those of the people no one cares about.”

The way Svetlana Alexievich’s work challenges the boundaries of journalism, the formally rigorous way it forms a community of forgotten lives — these are good reasons to celebrate her Nobel win. And there is at least one good way of celebrating it: we can read her books. But this brings me to yet another reason to be happy about today’s announcement. It highlights the value of small presses and literary journals.

Readers may point out (yet again) that today’s announcement is not particularly noteworthy because no one in the English-speaking world knows who Svetlana Alexievich is — or, at least, no one knew of her before today. It isn’t true. As I explained earlier, Voices from Chernobyl already won one of the major critical prizes in America, even if it was ten years ago. Also, the journal n+1 (Gessen is a founder), published an excerpt from the book in 2011. And if you happen to live in the UK, Fitzcarraldo Editions (read more here) already has plans to release Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time next May. So the moral is obvious: to find the truly original writers, go to the small press, the little magazine. This year, at least, even literary history was written from below.