September 14, 2013

"Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist?"

"Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?"

Good idea. (An idea in the form of 3 questions.)

This is related to my strong belief that schools should teach reading through nonfiction literature. This opinion was surprisingly controversial, and it heightened my suspicion of those who become adamant about the lofty regard that belongs writing in the fictional mode. It's funny that what's not true must control the highest position.

The 3 questions above are from the famously atheist Richard Dawkins, and my statement that begins with "It's funny" feels like an invitation to atheists to say something about religion.

And in my mind, I hear — though there is no sound — religionists and fiction lovers alike clamoring to talk about greater truths.


YoungHegelian said...

No doubt part of what underlies the unease with teaching non-fiction is the gender of most of the teachers. It's amazing how male non-fiction readers are & how female fiction readers. I would also imagine that, if Sci-Fi & Fantasy fiction was factored out of the findings, that the numbers for male fiction readers would be even worse.

Here's the link.

Lord only knows why this is the case.

Jenny said...

The Nobel Committee is a joke. Why spend time trying to figure them out. It is a liberal popularity contest these days.

Paddy O said...

scientists already have a selection of prizes.

We are more than our minds and our ability to manipulate the physical world. We are also storytellers and emotional beings, holistic in our approaches to each other and this world. That's not a higher truth, that's a more practical one.

We like to hear about other people to, how they live, the stories they share. It's a common thread throughout all of human history.

It's why people will remember the name Tolkien much longer than they remember the name Dawkins.

Beauty is its own truth, and should have a place of highlighting its themes and values, not devolve into yet another expression of utilitarianism.

Kirk Parker said...

"I once heard of a philosopher who gushed an “Oh, thank you!” when a woman at a party said she found his book hard to understand"

Now Dawkin's writing fiction himself. In reality, it was Bill Murray's character in Tootsie who said this (but Dawkins can't possibly admit to having watched it.)

Matt said...

Because there are several other Nobel prizes that honor science?

Besides, if you look at the list of people who have received Nobel Peace Prizes lately, it should be obvious that the Nobel people love fiction.

On another note, the article says Dawkins is preparing to write his autobiography. Hoo boy, that should be a doozy.

Cedarford said...

It is a great question.
"Literature" obviously goes beyond fictional novels and poetry. And some of the most impactful literature in the last 100 years or so is in non-fiction in areas not covered by other Nobels like Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and *snicker* ...Peace..

David said...

Leaving the topic to one side, note again, in the linked article, the casual assumption that President Obama is lying about his faith.

Mark Nielsen said...

One of the most well-written books I've ever read is Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" (about Wisconsin, no less).

Auntie Ann said...

The fiction/non fiction debate is complex. The two types of reading rely on different skills and require us to ask different questions of the text. In non-fiction, you are reading for information and with a skeptical eye; you are looking to be convinced and at the marshaling of evidence. In fiction, you are reading to learn about language, beauty, art, life, and the human condition.

Both types of reading are important. Unfortunately, I have never had a literature class that didn't diminish my enjoyment of a book--nit-picking analysis, hashing over minor details, and failing to grasp the overall picture, is not the way to enhance the enjoyment of literature. Better would be to have a book list that kids have to read a couple of books from each year and write a book report.

Non-fiction reading is probably the more-important skill. That may be why the Common Core has actually bumped it up in precedence and stresses non-fiction reading. There has been a hue and cry about that, but as long as literature isn't completely evicted from the curriculum, it's probably a good thing. Of course, that depends on what non-fiction is being read. Some of the Common Core suggestions were sad.

chuck said...

The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was nominated for 12 years for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1929, the Nobel Committee for Medicine engaged an expert who came to the conclusion that a further investigation in Freud was not necessary, since Freud's work was of no proven scientific value. What is less known, perhaps, is that Romain Rolland, Nobel Laureate in Literature 1915, and an acquaintance of Freud, nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.

I think Freud should definitely have gotten the literature prize for his wonderful fantasies and world building. Some might call it science.

Mikey Mannblaster said...

They should give the award to the IPCC or any of the other Glowball Warming Nutters.

All fiction, all the time.

Zach said...

There is very little nonfiction which rises to the Nobel level purely on a textual level. Innovations in structure, vocabulary, etc are bad almost by definition when the purpose is to explain things clearly. Could you imagine trying to learn anything from a book written like James Joyce's Ulysses?

The bigger problem is that the Literature Nobel is given out far too often. Realistically, there are maybe 10 Nobel worthy writers per century, not 10 per decade.

Consider a literary career beginning at age 20 and continuing to age 60. That's 40 years, and every one of those years somebody gets a Nobel. Is the 40th best long form, literary fiction writer of their generation really a Nobelist?

Ann Althouse said...

Quick, name a nonfiction writer who deserves a prize for the literary quality of his work. Has to be still alive.

I'll say Oliver Sacks.

Gabriel Hanna said...

I'll not comment on Dawkins since he unhinges the largely creationist Althouse commentariat. I would like to comment on what Ann said about greater truths in fiction.

Bill Steigerwald is a journalist who studied Steinbeck's journals that were the basis of Travels with Charley, which purported to be a factual account of Steinbeck's journey In Search of America. He even went so far as to travel the route himself.

What he found was that Steinbeck's journals bear so little resemblance to the trip as described in the book, that book is only fictional, it is actually deceptive, since it was presented as fact.

A great writer, like Steinbeck, can draw out great truths about human experience and present them in fiction. A bad writer, or a great writer at the end of a long career of plaudits culminating in a Nobel Prize for literature, can simply put his prejudices into written form and THINK that he is drawing out great truths about human experience.

Readers also fall for it--frequently confusing a writer's prejudices with great truths, or ascribing views to an writer that are presented in the book, though the writer does not necessarily hold them. (If I write a book where the protagonist is a sympathetically portrayed Nazi, it doesn't make me a Nazi any more than Ann Rice or Stephanie Meyer are vampires.)

Fiction at its best can tell you things about people not found in non-fiction, at its worst it is a mirror held to your prejudices.

YoungHegelian said...

@Prof Althouse,

To name a worthy non-fiction author, I'd pick James McPherson for Battle Cry of Freedom.

Incredibly readable. Even when you know what's happening next (as millions of Civil War buffs do), it's still hard to put it down.

YoungHegelian said...

Another author would be Peter Green for <a href=">Alexander to Actium.</a>

I apologize for two postings that could have been one, but "A to A" occurred to me right as I hit the publish button.

Smilin' Jack said...

"Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?"

Well, Churchill did win the Literature Prize for his history of WWII. But yes, Pinker would be a good choice. statement that begins with "It's funny" feels like an invitation to atheists to say something about religion.

Is there really anything more worth saying about it?

Quick, name a nonfiction writer who deserves a prize for the literary quality of his work. Has to be still alive.

Annie Dillard.

Anglelyne said...

"Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen?"

Surely I'm not the only one to whom this sentence comes across as completely retarded? Disclosure of vested (non)interest: I'm no great reader of fiction. Probably haven't read more than three or four works by contemporary fiction writers in forty years. But the dude sounds like the Rokeby slasher giving her opinion on paintings with mythological themes. Why would anybody care about paintings of things that didn't exist, when, helloooo, reality?!?!?

The lit Nobel has occasionally been awarded for non-fiction (as well as, iirc, mediocre fiction with party-approved themes, but that's another story). There are also any number of prizes out there, and recognition, for superlative non-fiction writing - as Mr. Dawkins ought to know, being the recipient of such recognition himself. Nor do I have the impressions that Mr. Pinker's writing talents have gone unappreciated due to the prejudices of all those truth-denying lovers of literature of the imagination out there.

So what we have here is a non-issue: certain childish types who don't like or "get" a particular art form getting bent out of shape that there are people giving time and kudos to it, rather than paying attention to the things the infants prefer, or, really, the infants themselves. I think that Dawkins is rather more put out that some Nobel committee has not seen fit to honor his glorious self with the palm, than he is about any slight to the (widely admired and well-rewarded) Steven Pinker.

Lem said...

It's funny that what's not true must control the highest position.

There is much more of what we don't know that is true, hidden from us, than there is that we think we know is true... so why bother?

If truth is neat... study shows it is less inspiring.

fivewheels said...

There are so many directions you can look in the wide range of nonfiction. While it's less true lately (but that's the nature of lifetime prizes) baseball writer Thomas Boswell was pretty magnificent in the '80s. And I always get a lot out of the sentences of Thomas Sowell, on topics from economics to late-talking children.

The Godfather said...

I read nonfiction much more than I read fiction, and I only very rarely read "serious" fiction. In prep school and college I read enough of the 19th and 20th century English and American "greats" to follow a discussion. On the few occasions that I've read contemporary "serious" fiction, I've been disappointed.

Lately I've read Philbrick's "Bunker Hill", Schlaes's "Coolidge", Olson's "Those Angry Days", Manchester & Reid's "The Last Lion" (vol. III), Metaxas's "Bonhoeffer", Hildebrand's "Unbroken", Larson's "In The Garden of Beasts", among others. I'm now reading Wolfe's "Back To Blood", which of course is fiction.

If I had to pick a non-fiction writer for a Literature Prize, it would be Tom Wolfe for lifetime achievement. If I'm limited to writers who have recently written non-fiction, I'd pick Philbrick for "Mayflower", "In The Heart Of The Sea", and "Bunker Hill".

Ambrose said...

For the same reason pitchers rarely win the MVP - they have their own awards.

Kirk Parker said...

"Quick, name a nonfiction writer who deserves a prize for the literary quality of his work. Has to be still alive."

V.S. Naipaul. Duh.

Ameryx said...


Jane said...

I can't do fiction. Really, I rarely can get absorbed in a story that I know is, well, fictional. But I can do memoirs (as long as the memoirist has lived a memorable life) and biography (though I dislike ghostwritten memoirs, or those which are written by creative writing professors and are too, too literary).

Best recent read: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.

But there are pitfalls in using nonfiction in a school setting, as a specific means of teaching reading comprehension: most nonfiction requires background knowledge (a biography requires historical background and some geography, a science topic requires the science background, etc.); fiction requires little background, especially if it's contemporary rather than historical fiction. Of course, even within that genre, there's plenty that's boy vs. girl-friendly. My son couldn't stand "How to Steal a Dog" which he was assigned over the summer, but devoured the Rick Riorden series, Fablehaven, the Inkheart series, etc., though it bugged him whenever the boy character was the troublemaker and the girl the heroine.

In any case, "teaching nonfiction" should mean more attention paid to the quality of the writing in social science/history and science textbooks, in writing clarity and, especially with respect to history, the use of primary sources where appropriate.

Ken Mitchell said...

The Nobel Prize for literature is supposed to be for GOOD WRITING, and so few scientists are actually capable of writing well.

A scientist writing readable non-fiction? Still alive? Stephen Hawking, for "A Brief History of Time".

The basic and fundamental principle of teaching is that if you cannot explain it, you do not understand the subject well enough to teach it.

Lovernios said...

Lauro Martines, "April Blood" an account of the Pazzi Conspiracy to murder Lorenzo the Magnificent d'Medici and "Fire in the City" about the Franciscan priest, Savonarola.

Joe said...

The important reading and writing is much more narrow than just non-fiction in general.

Reading and writing memos/emails is probably the most important skill a person could learn and often the most lacking.

Reading and writing short papers (or extended memos if you want) is the second most important skill.

Reading technical manuals falls into third place. Even something as simple as the fold out sheet most computer makers ship is too much for many people.

A basic grasp of reading legal documents is the last important skill.

Everything else is fluff.

Katie said...

I found this very interesting. They are pushing high school English teachers to teach more non-fiction writing because students are performing so poorly when reading non-fictin texts in standardized state testing. You would think our system for recognizing great writing would also be looking for excellent examples of non-fiction.

Michael Fitzgerald said...

Tom Wolfe is an interesting candidate. His body of non-fiction work is varied and interesting, and stylistically innovative. His fiction is perhaps not as strong.
Tracy Kidder has a diverse body of work that looks beyond the U.S., and his use of non-fiction technique is splendid. He perhaps even more than Wolfe was able to meld fictional techniques and reporting into a higher form of literature.
Joan Didion and her mastery of the personal narrative/essay would be a good candidate. She's also a novelist of some note.
Gay Talese would certainly get support.
Lillian Ross is still alive and her work was groundbreaking in the 1950s.
Of course, Joyce carol Oates, who is seen as short-listed, writes a lot of non-fiction in addition to her fiction.
Churchill won in 1953 for his histories, biographies and oratory, so there is certainly precedent for a non-fiction writer to win.