Despite being deemed a “writer’s writer” and “the Canadian Chekhov”, Alice Munro has never achieved wide recognition. That has just changed. From now on, she will be known as “the Nobel Prize winning author”, having received the world’s most prestigious literary award on 10th October. At 82, Munro is not the oldest author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, nor even the oldest woman: that distinction goes to Doris Lessing, who was 88 when she won in 2007. Even so, Munro joins an elite group of writers (which, surprisingly, doesn’t include the writer presumably now known as the “Russian Chekhov”): only 106 Nobel Prizes for Literature have been bestowed, and only 13 winners have been women.
What will this distinction mean for Munro? Some of the benefits will be financial: not just the gold gong and accompanying cheque, which will bring Munro 1.3 million Canadian dollars (about £780,000), but also in terms of sales: her most recent book, Dear Life, is number 81 on Amazon.com’s bestsellers list today. Not bad remuneration for a life’s work, and that is what the Nobel Prize tends to reward, both in money and prestige: rarely, an author receives the award for a specific book, but Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will that the literature prize should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” and that direction, it seems, generally takes a lifetime to map.
One thing that is truly remarkable about the decision to honour Munro is that she is almost exclusively a writer of short stories. Indeed, Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy, revealing the name of this year’s winner, described Munro as a “master of the short story”. Setting aside the transgender aspect of this for the moment, it is the acknowledgement of the short story form that is most striking, since it has typically been seen as a poor relation of the novel. Interviewed on the day the prize was announced, Munro commented that, much as she was delighted with the award for herself, she was also pleased for “the short story in general. Because it’s often sort of brushed off, you know, as something that people do before they write their first novel. And I would like it to come to the fore, without any strings attached, so that there doesn’t have to be a novel”.
It’s certainly true that short stories are often considered practice-pieces for the proper literary task of writing a novel, and many short story authors are pressured by publishers to write in the longer form. Ernest Hemingway, for example, is renowned for his short stories, and his ‘iceberg’ theory about how best to write them, but he received the Nobel Prize for a novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Author Lorrie Moore suggests that, in her own way, Munro has made a revolutionary contribution to short fiction: “She is a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do”. Munro’s recognised excellence in a marginalised form should do much to recuperate its status.
Unlike Hemingway, Munro’s work suggests a commitment to depicting ordinary life, rather than dramatic adventures. Further, she tends to focus, as the title of an early collection states, on the Lives of Girls and Women. A feminist consciousness informs her fiction, subtly revealing how social expectations of gender inform every aspect of daily life. As writer Roxana Robinson notes, Munro is “simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men”. In fiction, as in life, that apparently obvious point still needs to be made.
Many more readers will now be aware of Munro because of the Nobel Prize and that can only be a good thing. Some of the best-known writers have been singing her praises for years, and she has a devoted readership that hopefully will now grow even larger. Brett Easton Ellis didn’t realise the strength of feeling Munro’s work induces when he tweeted “Alice Munro is so completely overrated” in response to the Nobel committee’s announcement. The backlash this glib remark created made Ellis feel, he tweeted, “like I’ve beaten up Santa Claus”, but he conceded that he would now “re-read” Munro, whose work he “never really got”. Rather than being overrated, Ellis’s change of position suggests that he underrated Munro’s standing, her work and her admirers.
I’m glad Ellis is willing to change his mind, because Munro is one of the best writers in English, in any form. Almost any page of any of her stories contains an example of concise, evocative description. Fields of high corn are “an orderly radiance”. The way people speak, and the comedy of everyday life, are deftly evoked: “‘I’ve always used bad language,’ Bugs said. ‘I like it. I liked it long before it got to be so popular’”. Munro’s stories are quiet, yet full of drama: “My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned” begins one, with so much tension added by the inclusion of “been”.
Julian Barnes says that Munro’s short stories “have the density and reach of other people’s novels”, and she has been writing them for more than forty years. She says that she always believes her best work to be her most recent, but wryly adds that, having begun there, new readers might like to work backwards through the rest of her books. Although she recently announced her retirement, perhaps the global attention she is now receiving will take her back to her desk. If not, she has certainly ended her career in style.