Canadian author Alice Munro, 82, won the Nobel Prize in Literature Thursday. And very few readers and book critics are likely to complain.
Called a “master of the contemporary short story” by the Swedish Academy, Munro is one of the more beloved and admired contemporary fiction writers in the English language. Shortly after the announcement Thursday morning, social media outlets seemed to bestow a collective laurel wreath on her head, with Margaret Atwoodtweeting a big “Hooray!” and Salman Rushdie tweeting that she’s “a true master of the form.”
The choice of Munro represents a victory of sorts for a number of different factions. It’s a nice nod to Canadian writers, since the last to win was the Canadian-born but American-raised Saul Bellow, in 1976. It’s a much-needed recognition of female writers, since Munro is only the 13th woman to win since the prize began in 1901. It’s a happy acknowledgment for late bloomers, since Munro didn’t publish her first collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” until she was 37. It’s also a triumph for the art of the short story, too often perceived merely as a rehearsal for novel-writing, as if length somehow equals value. Munro has written only one novel, “Lives of Girls and Women” from 1971. Alas, story collections generally don’t sell as well as novels.
In a statement, acknowledging the prize on Thursday, Munro noted some of these facets of her win: “When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world. Now Canadian writers are read, admired and respected around the globe. I’m so thrilled to be chosen as this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature recipient. I hope it fosters further interest in all Canadian writers. I also hope that this brings further recognition to the short story form.”
But mostly the choice of Munro represents the triumph of quiet excellence. Munro is a modest writer who has never seemed to be well-known enough, even though she has had an enormously devoted readership. Readers keep discovering her, writers and critics keep promoting her, and yet she has remained a favorite underdog. Her stories are rooted in the Canadian landscape of southwestern Ontario, where she was born and where she continues to live. Sometimes compared to Chekhov, she brings a strong psychological realism to her characters as she explores their hidden shames and self-deceptions, their desires and weaknesses. Her stories flashback and flash-forward often in bracingly abrupt fashion; the echo of one part of a story can be heard faintly throughout the subsequent pages. The result gives the reader a full impression of the characters, of the arc of their entire lives. It’s the kind of deep understanding often associated with novels.
The Nobel Prize, which brings to the winner 8 million Swedish kronor (about $1.2 million), is the cap on a marvelous career. This summer, Munro told the New York Times that she has retired, that her 14th story collection 2012’s, “Dear Life,” would be her last. “I feel a bit tired now – pleasantly tired,” she said in that interview. “There is a nice feeling about being just like everyone else now.”
Matthew Gilbertcan be reached at email@example.com.