7 reasons why the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature is a Belarusian you don’t know

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich leaves a news conference after being named the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich leaves a news conference after being named the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.

(Sergei Grits / Associated Press)

Once again, the Nobel Prize in literature was announced and most Americans were left scratching their heads. Svetlana who? From Bela-where?

It’s been more than 20 years since an American was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. That was Toni Morrison, in 1993. It’s been hard for us to figure, because earlier in the 20th century, Americans dominated the Nobel Literature Laureates list: Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O’Neill (1936), Pearl S. Buck (1938), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962).

That’s six wins in 32 years (a seventh if you include American-born T.S. Eliot, who won in 1948, after he had long been a resident of England). And now, no recognition for 22 years? Have we done something wrong?


Well, yes, according to the former head of the Swedish Academy. Here are 7 reasons why the latest Nobel Literature Laureate is not only not an American, but a writer you haven’t even heard of -- Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus.

1. American literature is “too isolated, too insular.” In 2008, then-Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl made headlines when he declared American literary culture “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” That year, the award went to French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a writer with virtually no public profile in the United States.

2. American writers suffer from “professionalization.” Again Engdahl, still the Permanent Secretary, publicly stated his criticisms of the literary culture of America and the West. This time it was 2014, and he was speaking to a French newspaper. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard - but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.” He decried the “professionalization” of literature in America and Europe through grants and other financial support.

3. The 3% problem. Only about 3% of books published in the U.S. each year are works in translation, while in France, it’s about 27% and in Spain, 28%. In countries with native languages that are spoken less widely, the translation ratios go even higher -- 40% in Turkey, 70% in Slovenia. So American readers are less likely to be exposed to writers from other cultures than readers in other nations. A Belarusian? We’re barely even reading books from our southern neighbor, Mexico.

4. Rights are complicated. Most writers first get book deals in their native countries, then have agents who represent the foreign rights for their books. Selling the rights to a book in another nation is a nice bonus for an author -- the book may have been done for years, and then they get a little check because it’s going to be published in Germany. But these rights are usually sold piecemeal, even for authors who top bestseller lists at home -- Swedish crimewriter Henning Mankell’s Wallander series was published out of order in the U.S.

5. Svetlana Alexievich’s rights are particularly complicated. According to one interested publisher, Alexievich’s English-language rights have been sold to British independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has no regular distribution deal in the U.S.

6. One book. Alexievich’s only widely available work in the U.S. is “Voices of Chernobyl,” published by independent Dalkey Archive Press; Picador has announced it will print a fresh run of 20,000 paperbacks following her win. The book won the National Book Critics Circle 2005 award for nonfiction. “This book will crush you. The emotions are more true than in any other book I’ve ever read,” Chad Post, who was with Dalkey at the time, tells the L.A. Times. “I will start weeping now thinking about the dad who gave his firefighter hat to his son, who then got brain cancer and died.”

7. Americans don’t read deeply into Russia. Keith Gessen, who translated “Voices of Chernobyl” from the Russian, tells the L.A. Times that we don’t see much of Alexievich’s work in the U.S. because “Her books are interviews with very ordinary people. It’s not really what Americans typically desire of their Russian reading.” He believes “Voices of Chernobyl” was “an exception because it’s about nuclear power, so not a specifically Russian problem.”

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