In defence of non-fiction literature

Daniel Villar thinks the Nobel Prize committee has neglected non-fiction

No one missed Bob Dylan winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature last week. In 2015, a Belarusian author almost unknown in the Anglophone world named Svetlana Alexievich won the same prize. What made Alexievich’s victory unusual was that, like Dylan, she wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for her poems, novels, or short stories. She doesn’t have any of these. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her non-fiction.

This year the judges again branched out from the common understanding of literature. When we think of literature, we tend to think of novels, poems, or short stories—very occasionally a travelogue, though that only secondarily and with some doubt as to whether it ought to be included. Yet when we look at the Oxford English Dictionary, literature is defined as “Written works, especially considered to be of superior or lasting artistic merit”. No talk there of the necessity of the events being made, the characters false and the actions imagined. Indeed, much of what we may colloquially call literature doesn’t fall under this definition at all—who after all considers the turgid prose of Dan Brown or the works of the poetaster William McGonagall, as being “of superior or lasting artistic merit”.

Though it seems alien to us in England and 2016, for Alfred Nobel, viewing works of non- fiction as works of literature seemed natural. Indeed, given his general practical disposition and outlook, it appears very likely that when Alfred Nobel set out a prize for literature in his will, he meant it mainly to benefit authors of non-fiction. And for a few brief years after Nobel died, his wish was on the whole followed, and a number of authors mainly noted for their non-fiction won the Nobel Prize for literature, including the classicist Theodor Mommsen and the philosopher Henri Bergson. But it didn’t take long for non-fiction laureates to become sparser and sparser.

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Which brings us back to Alexievich. She is the first laureate since 1953, when Sir Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel, to have won the prize for non-fiction work. That is not to say other laureates haven’t written non-fiction since then. Pablo Neruda would write political pamphlets, Doris Lessig wrote her memoirs, and number of laureates have written copiously on literary criticism, but none of these were why they won the prize. They won it for their fiction.

Some may say the dearth of non-fiction writers amongst Nobel laureates isn’t a problem. Definitions change, and in the modern age, literature has come to mean fiction. But the lack of acknowledgement of non-fiction as literature is part of wider problem. It is extends to what C.P. Snow, in 1953, called the two cultures. Then, it was simply a division between literary intellectuals and scientific intellectuals, but today, the world has gotten much more fragmented. The literary intellectuals now come to consider literature as their own field of fiction, and whatever lies beyond it to be some strange writing, but certainly not literature. Which is a pity because for all the benefit of novels and poems, there is still much which can only be learnt from non-fiction, and many great stories which are true.

A common riposte to this argument would no doubt be that fiction authors tend to be better stylists. Even if this is so, it does not take away from the fact that there have been a number of authors who write mainly or exclusively non-fiction who, as stylists, are equal to a Nobel novelist. In the English language alone, since 1953, there has been the historian E.P. Thompson, the biologist Richard Dawkins, the essayist Christopher Hitchens, and the travel writer Rebecca West. All of these are writers of great skill and ability, who are at least of deserving of a Nobel as Haldor Laxness or Par Lagerkvist.

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In the midst of the debate over Dylan’s worthiness, non-fiction remains neglected in the prize’s history. I hope that, in future, the judges don’t revert to their old practices, but consider worthy writers such as Richard Dawkins and David McCullough, who write about real events, and not just their imaginations.