Fiction Glows in a Luxury That Is Not Permitted in Journalism

Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), October 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Fiction Glows in a Luxury That Is Not Permitted in Journalism


India, Oct. 11 -- 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. …

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