Belarusian Investigative Journalist Svetlana Alexievich Wins the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

October 8, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 8

Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection of a non-fiction writer is a rare development for the Nobel, which has overwhelmingly favored fiction writers over the years.

coverAlexievich is known in the U.S. pretty much exclusively for her powerful book of non-fiction, Voices from Chernobyl, which was translated by Keith Gessen and initially published in hardcover by Dalkey Archive Press. The book relies on the testimony of survivors, in the vein of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Dan Wickett wrote about the book in these pages in 2005:

I don’t think I set this 300-plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.

Alexievich’s book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Zinky Boys, takes a similar approach, as do several other volumes which have as yet not been published in English translations.

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  1. Nobel schmobel. Svetlana can write, and given the malignant potential of the geopolitics of this place, hers is a crucial and much-needed perspective. That the committee may have accidentally awarded a talented writer the prize doesn’t make her more worthy or them less craven.

    Nobel schmobel.

  2. More identity politics and obscurantism trumping literary merit. Another box checked off while literary titans remain unrewarded. There was a time when serious literature people would have called the phrase “investigative journalist wins Nobel Prize for Literature” an oxymoron. In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song or Operation Shylock, for example, are brilliant precisely because they read as anything BUT investigative journalism. We have moved on to an age that literally is proud of validating secondary work as long as it fits with a condescending leftist inclusivism. It’s about constituency and making sure everyone’s represented. It’s about a false sense of equality instead of a real sense of justice or rewarding the deserving, the brilliant, the ingenious/capacious/inventive.

  3. @Sean H

    No serious person can find much fault in your disgust at the Nobel Committee’s way of doing things, but I’m rarely serious so here goes.

    Nobel makes no secret of its agenda – a fact so absurd that it’s hardly a thing to be angry about. The kerfuffle about “we won’t be choosing any Americans, sniff, sniff” from a few years back was interesting from the standpoint of the lack of outrage it caused (outside the US). Critical thought is hard and best avoided – worldwide, it seems. I’m repeating myself: Nobel Schmobel.

    Yet, I’d caution you not to replace the Nobel Committee’s post hoc thinking with more of the same. Are you assuming that Svetlana Alexievich is not among those worth reading (and rewarding) just because she was selected for the Nobel? Or have you come to that conclusion after reading her?

    On occasion Nobel gets it right, and as seems fitting for their m.o., they do so utterly by accident. Svetlana made it almost too easy for them to check off the boxes, in every way except one: her writing doesn’t fit their script. She doesn’t share their politics. On the one hand, female, obscure, neo-dissident, suitably left of center, and ‘nobody’s read her except we, the enlightened few’, seems like a no-brainer. On the other, once you read her, you discover that whatever wishy-washy Leninisms that Committee looks for are notably absent in this woman.

    Has she produced as much “important” (these categories do get slippery) work as _____________ (insert ‘deserving’ author’s name here)? Who knows? As good as Philip Roth, for instance, a talented writer who has produced three great books, two or three more pretty good ones and piles and piles of crap? In the end, do you reasonably expect that Committee to take a wider view? Why rage against mediocre thinking? Why join their ranks?

    There’s a pretty good saying in Russian: “ya ne chytal Pasternaka, no evo asuzhdayu – I haven’t read Pasternak, but I condemn him.” This, in my experience, is too often a problem in contemporary discourse.

    Eastern European journalists who can write may suffer from the lack of visibility that results from the lack of translation into English, but it doesn’t mean that they are not touching the world at its ugliest wound and producing some pretty arresting journalism. Given the reality that guys like Putin still exist, these (few) journalists fit your categories of “…the deserving, the brilliant, the ingenious/capacious/inventive”. I would also add “the unbelievably courageous” since here, where I live, they hunt down and shoot journalists. I am not employing metaphor here. Hunt and kill for being writers. Anna Politovskaya, Grigoriy Gongadze are perhaps a couple names you have heard of.

    In Cold Blood was a fine book, but it was a book. Voices from Chernobyl is a gut punch followed up by an evisceration with a sharp spoon. And, Nobel Schmobel.

  4. Yes, not a knock on Alexievich per se or de facto, just a point that a body of work used to have to be a full-on massive and sustained achievement in order to get, y’know, a Nobel Prize. Not a disparagement of Alexievich, just an acknowledgement of how far off the rails things are.

  5. No argument that the train has jumped the track; I just can’t get too excited over what is, in truth, a very silly and – as a validation of progressive human consciousness – a very minor award. Let the European champagne socialists celebrate their privilege by throwing an annual party for themselves; Cormac isn’t losing any sleep.

    Sveta’s body of work is impressive enough; I just don’t know (too lazy to check) what’s been translated, but I can think of at least half-a-dozen titles that were big splashes around here. “Zinc Boys”, about soviet misadventures in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl book are probably the best examples of what Nobel must have been thinking about with its ridiculous “polyphonic prose” hyperbole. She’s a good enough journalist, thorough, distant, but she picks some motherblasting subject matter to cover.

    She also wasn’t afraid to spit in the soviet eye when it existed. They refused to publish her, blacklisted her, but then glasnost happened, life changed, and they (there I go conflating the Nobel Committee with the Central Committee again) gave her a belated Nobel.

    Bigger fish to fry, comrade.

  6. I think she’s a good choice. Better than giving it to some graphomaniac like Murakami or another grim European poet who’s written a thousand poems about what it feels like to take another lonely stroll in the woods. I still think DeLillo checks all the regular Nobel boxes and that if he wasn’t American he would have won it fifteen years ago, but he’s probably been rewarded enough for one lifetime.

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