What this Nobel in Literature really means

Svetlana Alexievich’s win isn’t just a win for women, but for an entire underappreciated literary genre


When Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, I immediately received word of the achievement from a friend on Twitter. She tweeted to me, “LIT JOURNO NOBEL!!!” to which I replied, “AND A WOMAN!!!” To say the least, we were excited. Historically, only 11.6 percent of Nobel Literature winners are female. But it wasn’t that statistic alone that caused us to be so stunned by this news.

Alexievich is the first woman to win the Nobel in Literature for non-fiction writing, ever.

Before this year, only three men have won for non-fiction writing: Bertrand Russell in 1950 for philosophy, Winston Churchill in 1953 for history, and Jean-Paul Satre in 1964 for philosophy, though he declined it. With Alexievich now part of this list, winning for what the Swedish Academy has defined as “polyphonic writings” that are “a monument to suffering and courage in our time”, it is a win for women, surely, but also for a particular lesser-known genre within non-fiction writing.

According to Sara Danius, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Alexievich has “devised a new genre” that extends beyond the material at hand and emphasizes the importance of form. However, Alexievich’s genre is not “new”, and can be defined by much simpler terms: literary journalism.

Have you heard of it?

When I first learned of the term “literary journalism”, I was skeptical. I had grown comfortable with calling the style of writing “creative nonfiction” or “longform”. I wasn’t looking to fall even deeper into the rabbit hole of all the subcategories within nonfiction that continued to confuse my understanding of truth versus accuracy.

But as I’ve come to discover, literary journalism is neither a new version of a catchall term nor a new genre, and it’s important that we acknowledge this. Though Alexievich is the first writer recognised for writing in this nonfiction style by the Nobel Foundation, writers like Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Lillian Ross, Gay Talese, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc are just a few of the already-established masters of the form. Pick up any magazine with long features, like The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, or Harper’s, and the genre will stare you right in the face. It is not, as I said, anything “new”.

By definition, literary journalism is “a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all of the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associate with fiction”.

In other words, literary journalism is literature as journalism.

The form includes literary techniques typical in fiction like character development, voice, and symbolism to create a consciousness and meaning on the page that build upon the reader’s ensuing reactions. The main challenge of the form is to portray real events with true passion and emotion, helping the reader to feel the fact. In the style’s condensing of reality, the writer is able to editorialise through literary techniques like imagery and metaphor, which are not typically found in traditional journalism.

This is the genre of writing that Alexievich should be recognized for mastering — a genre that embraces a long tradition of first-rate storytellers. Her style cannot be belittled to a “blending of journalism and literary flourish,” as the New York Times described it. In literary journalism, these two genres do not need to be blended because they could never be separate.

According to Alexievich’s website, she had searched for a genre that “would be most adequate to my vision of the world to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life”. In literary journalism, she found it.

Reading one of her famous pieces, “Zinky Boys”, which is about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, I can appreciate the brilliance of Alexievich’s literary journalism style through the disparate voices and the construction of the interviews in varying scenes and summaries. Alexievich carefully presents readers with brutally vivid information that evokes in us a sense of hopelessness, immediacy, and unbearable grief. No other style could achieve such heartbreak while examining the internal life of humanity.

Many of the articles I have read about Alexievich’s win claim that she is “unpopular” with her compatriots and is even considered by some to be an “unpatriotic traitor”. Isn’t that always the story? People who seek the rawest and the most shockingly faithful portrayals of reality are scorned for frightening us. But it’s undeniable that this is the writing that breaks barriers and now, apparently, that wins Nobels. Perhaps literary journalism and nonfiction in general have not been widely recognised before, but it’s never too late to start. I’m ecstatic to be alive for this amazing achievement and win for literature. At last, non-fiction isn’t seen as second-rate to fiction and poetry.

Much in the way Fintan O’Toole recently noted in the Irish Times that the Dublin Theatre Festival has shown that the trajectory of theatre is in the midst of a great transition to a documentary style, so too is writing bending its established boundaries. In our world of ambivalent social opinion and disparate beliefs, perhaps this is the best way for our artists to understand truth. And it’s this literary journalism style of writing — allowing readers to see and feel humanity in its purest, truest form — that is the style worth praising on any scale, from classroom to Nobel.