A few days ago, a woman in Minsk was ironing clothes when she got a call saying that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature. Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the prize for capturing scenes like this from the lives of other people, when a banal moment may dissolve into the extraordinary. She is a collector of voices that tell, when taken together, a sentimental history of a time in place.
Among the people who celebrate her decoration are those who point out that it has been decades since the prize was given to a writer who practised only ‘non-fiction’, which is the most inelegant description of journalism. A note stuck on the dressing table of the protagonist in the film ‘Birdman’ says, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” ‘Non-fiction’ then is worse than what is ‘said of that thing’ because it is described by what it is not. Alexievich, to be precise, has won the Swedish prize for journalism that can be regarded as art.
On her blog, she made a declaration long before she was awarded the prize: “Today when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified the document in art is becoming increasingly interesting while art as such often proves impotent.”
Is it true, as she says, that fiction is impotent and less ‘interesting’ than journalism?
In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the Jnanpith award to the Marathi writer, Bhalchandra Nemade, who is chiefly known for his novels. (A few days earlier, Nemade had said that Salman Rushdie was mediocre, and Rushdie tweeted: ‘Grumpy old bastard. Just take your prize and say thank you nicely…’) Modi, speaking at the awards ceremony, encouraged India to read literature. Seen in context and considering the body of his speech, Modi was, very honestly, asking the nation to read fine fiction. He was unafraid to make the sincere appeal in a way he would have never been comfortable promoting excellent journalism.
The modern State, he appeared to say, has nothing to fear from fiction, from any art that springs from imagination. When people have to be begged to read fiction, a prime minister is so assured that he himself chooses to put in a request. Was he thinking what danger can art wreak when it is in a perpetual crisis, and it is filled with petty, jealous, ever-lamenting storytellers and referees, many of who have a bitter sense of failure? In fact, the times when fiction seems potent is when the State or the Faith takes unnecessary offence, and uses disproportionate force against an author.
Fiction faces a more respectable crisis. Many novelists who also write pure facts are beginning to ask a simple but disturbing question about their fiction — ‘Why am I making up stuff’ when the new channels of communication are showing the real world as highly fascinating and complex.
Today philosophy that is not anchored in science is naïve. The novelist Tom McCarthy wrote in an essay that there is more anthropology in the heart of tech companies than in the modern novel. “If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google…” The Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif finds the present world so absurd that he says it is becoming hard for imagined humour to compete with reality.
Novelists are asking themselves why they must diminish their hard-won facts by showing them up as fiction.
But then fiction has places of adorable truth where journalism cannot tread. Fiction fabricates and arranges events to create something that is intrinsically incomplete called a story, which requires a clear sign like ‘The End’ or ‘Acknowledgments’ to suggest it is over. A story can also be built on painstakingly collected reality, portraying characters that exist or once existed, and events that did transpire. But where fiction glows is in one luxury that is not permitted in journalism: Fiction can get into a mind. It is here that fiction opens its doors to genius.
In JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, a middle-aged professor who has an affair with a young student regards his circumstances during an investigation by the university: ‘…On trial for his way of life. For unnatural acts: for broadcasting old seed, tired seed, seed that does not quicken, contra naturam. If the old men hog the young women, what will be the future of the species? That, at bottom, was the case for the prosecution. Half of literature is about it: young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men, for the sake of the species.’
Fiction is about these moments. A story then is a delivery-device for moments. They can exist on their own but they are richest when we know their history and the nature of the people who reveal them.
A work of great journalism restricts itself to an area of illumination and seeks the reader’s interest in walking into the light. But a story is universal and can hide a factual history that one may not have otherwise sought.
A reader may not be interested in the history of a Colombian village but that is exactly what she acquires from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Also, she may not want to read a sympathetic account of a middle-aged man accused of sexual exploitation, and the aftermath of a consensual sex when a young woman claims it was a violation, but then that is what one half of Disgrace is about.
Art, at times, is so potent that nobody realises it is.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. Twitter: @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal)