Alice Munro awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

Pencil sketch of Alice Munro. Artist: Andreas Vartdal< Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Pencil sketch of Alice Munro. Artist: Andreas Vartdal, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Alice Munro’s distinguished literary career has just been recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Readers who like the short story format are almost certainly familiar with that name, as Munro has long been considered one of Canada’s literary lions.

This past summer Munro announced an intent to stop writing – a concession to her age (82) and to the hard work the craft can demand. Teacher and writer Paul Graham discussed Munro’s significance on a universal and regional level in this Readers and Writers post from July:

The landscape, the grit and pace of this life, the reticence and desperation and surprising shocks of joy: she knows just how we live. Other writers will continue to tell such stories, but Munro’s short fiction, especially from her middle period, shine a light on lives that most of the world just isn’t very good at, or interested in, describing.

That’s one mark of real talent: to create ordinary lives in unspectacular settings and make readers care. I was amused by this comment from Toronto (of Toronto) that accompanied Thursday’s New York Times article on the award:

It is interesting that the long struggle of Canadian authors over the last century to find and create a distinctive voice — supported by small magazines, struggling publishers, occasional bouts of government aid, and just the sheer difficulty of being heard above the American din — should have resulted at long last in this award. That it should not be for the GREAT CANADIAN NOVEL, but for the quiet, brutal short story, the themes of small town Ontario (easily one of the seemingly most boring places in the world), and endless hard work resulting in peerlessly sculpted sentences over 50 years — that is part of the sheer pleasure in hearing about Alice getting the Nobel. A good day. A day like beating the Russians at hockey…..

Got that? “…one of the seemingly most boring places in the world”! But life, loss, pain, triumph and beauty are found everywhere – even in small town Ontario, Northern New York or what-have-you.

As for the question of when to call it a day, here’s more from Graham’s Readers and Writers post:

Since writing seems to demand no physical effort (but it does) and can be performed anywhere (but it can’t), one might think a writer can continue until the very end. And some have done exactly that, writing long past the time when they’d run out of things to say, or long after they’d lost the sense of urgency that makes prose vivid. The result can be wheezing, self-referential, gassy. At best such prose feels dutiful, or resigned. I won’t name any names.

Many say Munro left at the top of her game with her 2012 work Dear Life.

This award may prompt some degree of remedial reading, starting with my own rueful confession.

Naturally, I have heard of Munro. I have even reached for her books on library shelves, only to re-shelf them after realizing, “Uh, oh. Wait a second. This is a book of (sinister music) short stories.”

Alas, I find those annoying. If they are any good (and some are as good as the greatest writing ever) I am left frustrated that they end too soon. And if they aren’t good…well, why bother? (This is akin to white chocolate – favored by some, but not tempting to me.)

As detailed in this article from the Vancouver Sun, Munro knows the type of bias I harbor is only too common:

“…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.”"

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Munro said, “I think my stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories, and I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.

This NPR story about Munro’s Nobel Prize includes the chance to read excerpts of her work. The NY Times has an “Arts Beat” tribute to Munro’s humility that includes a list of articles about her work over the years.

Do readers have any favorite Alice Munro stories? Also, do you like the short story form – why or why not?

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5 Responses to “Alice Munro awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature”

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  1. Anh Do says:

    I do not like the work of Alice Munro. In my opinion, her excruciatingly intelligent approach to human reality is a representation of an egoistic, manic depressive soul in a vast human arrays of abstract, self-absorbed pessimism. As a single human entity, I believe we should recognize the human reality in consistently continuous dialogue among the multitudes of me as well as the diversity of us. To represent an entire human spectrum of experience in Ms. Munro passive aggressive, calculating endeavor toward a mercenary view of human nature is incredibly dark. I wish for us all the alternative realities besides that of Ms. Munro all the more because we could only grow if there are possibilities of choices, abstract or not.

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  2. Lucy Martin says:

    Really? Alice Munro?

    What you describe sounds more like Margaret Atwood to me.

    But what do I know? While I have read some Atwood, I am way behind on my Munro.

    And yes, opinions on writers can and do differ. There’s no need to expect pure praise, even for those who seem universally admired.

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  3. Paul says:

    Never heard of her till now. Thanks for the info.

    I would nominate Tim O’brien.

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  4. Anh Do says:

    The work of Atwood is, in my view, not excruciatingly intelligence nor mercenary; it is a psychotic attempt to rationalize amoral or immoral choices. The work of Munro, on the other hand, is a relentless pursuit, hence mercenary, of a worldview that is inherently self-absorbed in pessimism.

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  5. mervel says:

    I really like Alice Munro,

    She is a little bit of a downer sometimes.

    I liked the story about the girls and in particular one girl, on the dirt road in Ontario, I can’t remember the name of it, it was good (of course good does not do it justice), but it really struck me. She has many other short stories I have read that I didn’t always enjoy but always remembered, which to me is a sign of a great artist.

    I am not a literary person in general, but I started reading her stories in the New Yorker and got hooked.

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