The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded annually, since 1901 to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction‘. Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, here ‘work’ refers to an author’s oeuvre. The prize includes a gold medal, a dilpoma and a sum of money that averages kr 8,000,000, or roughly £776,000. The prize-giving ceremony is held in Stockholm in early December.
Each year the Swedish Academy, of around eighteen members, requests thousands of nominations from former Nobel laureates, members of literature academies, professors of literature and language, and presidents of writers’ organisations. After the 1st of February the few hundred proposals returned are then examined by the Nobel Committee who produce a list twenty candidates, which is then later shortlisted to five approved names by May before a winner is voted on by the Academy in October. A candidate is not allowed to win unless they have already been on the list at least twice.
Women make up a depressingly small number of Nobel Laureates, across all fields, and so it was with great jubilation that we greeted the news that Alice Munro was to be awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, marking her as the thirteenth female and 110th laureate to receive the accolade.
Since its announcement last Thursday, there have been very few controversies surrounding the Academy’s decision. Certainly Munro has at least gathered enough global popularity to avoid the Herta-gate incidents that often surround previous Nobel winners little known outside of their–often Eastern European–country nor were there any political stirrings akin to Mo Yan‘s win last year. Barring a sudden last minute dash, out of nowhere, by journalist Svetlana Alexievich (and an earlier attempt by Norwegian Jon Fosse), Munro has been floating around the top of the Ladbrokes’ betting tables for years now. Outcries at an English-language writer winning the award have been relatively subdued too; though this just means that the clamouring Pynchon and Roth supporters will need to wait some more before the Academy will even consider breaking their dry spell over an America thought too ‘insular‘. The overall nothing-but-praise attitude of the media emphasises the omnipotency of Munro’s legacy, as a:
via Swedish Academy
master of the contemporary short story.
However in my opinion much is to be desired with the Academy’s citation. The complement seems a little back-handed, as if Stockholm could not think of anything else to say about a writer authoritatively dubbed a Chekhov (or even Mansfield) of our generation and one must wonder at the possibility of Munro as being a safe choice for the Academy, certainly in contrast to other more volatile choices such as other heavy-contenders Syrian poet Adunis, or the unpredictable Pynchon. Was Munro the least objectionable middle-ground author on the shortlist? Or was the prize a conciliatory one, given in haste due to her assurance that she was retiring from writing after her publication of Dear Life.
Cynicism aside few would find the Ontario born author of exclusively short stories an objectionable win; she has not only added to the literary definition of her country, but also redefined the genre of short stories – a genre that in contemporary times has become synonymous with Alice Munro. Her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) claimed Canada’s highest literary prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award – an award that Munro would win twice more in 1978 and 1986 with The Beggar Maid (published as Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada) and The Progress of Love respectively. Publishing collection after collection of stories that never strayed far from literary excellence, she has also been lauded both locally with the Trillium Book Award for Friend of My Youth (1990) as well as the Giller Prize, twice, for The Love of a Good Woman (1998) and Runaway (2004), whilst further afield Munro can boast a Man Booker Nomination for The Beggar Maid and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Love of a Good Woman. In recognition of her work she became the recipient of the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 which, like the Nobel, is dedicated to celebrating a life-time contribution to fiction on the world stage. It is time enough for Munro, aged 83, to pick up her Nobel medal.
What defines Munro’s fiction is its microcosmic quality: set principally in Huron County, her stories espouse the provincial Southern Ontario Gothic that binds her small-town inhabitants together. Early collections placed an emphasis on coming of age in families and in a morally hypocritical society, whilst recently her work has matured literally focusing on the lives of middle-aged and elderly women – though overarching across all her writings is the idea of motherhood, either the palpable influence of Munro’s own mother throughout the stories, such as in the four autobiographical pieces in Dear Life, or abstractedly some quest or understanding about motherhood and the love related to it.
At times her short stories seek to defy their conventions. The View from Castle Rock is almost autobiographical whilst Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar Maid are collections where each story interweaves with each other just as much as a novel may do. Nevertheless Munro has never been shy in accepting her territory as a champion of the short story; her reactions to her Nobel win seem to be largely, and quite rightly, focused on how the prize is a celebration of a form that is:
via Youtube telephone interview
often sort of brushed off, you know, as something that people do before they write their first novel … There doesn’t need to be a novel.
Her stories are often criticised for being character–rather than plot–driven, but the characters, themselves universal, become vessels for the small epiphanies of life. The dioramas of her stories seem lonely when coupled with the sublime isolation of the Canadian wilderness, as much a resounding theme of her work as is love and friendship. Even the domestic spaces in Munro’s stories take a terrible ‘gothic’ beauty. Ontario is both a land of hauntingly beautiful and open snow and forested wastelands, but equally oppressively stifling. Her writing resonates; it is thoroughly human in its endeavour, but also precisely structured. Every sentence has the paradoxical ability to read like a found thing–but a perfect one, as if naturally made in the right order; they have the effortless quality of seemingly falling into place just so.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)
Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and enquired about shipping furniture.
A Real Life, Open Secrets (1994)
A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck. At least, he wanted to marry her. It was true.
There seems to be an extraordinary quality in the ordinariness of topics that Munro chooses to write about. In some ways you can see Munro as an ordinary writer: she wakes early and writes a set amount of pages each morning; she owns a bookshop; she is shy and reserved; she has undergone bypass surgery for a heart condition; her husband, Gerald Fremlin, passed away in April this year. These human events act as a kind of mirror, just like her fiction, revealing the ineluctable qualities of human life. Detractors of Munro’s writing, who call her work too ordinary and plain, miss the entire point – that in its masterful ordinariness, just as the Academy pointed out, it is anything but.
Dates of first published are listed, regardless of reprint or cover-edition.
Telephone interview with Alice Munro following the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature via Youtube
An essay by Margaret Atwood on Alice Munro’s legacy via the Guardian
Alice Munro, Chekhov and the Nobel Prize via The New Yorker
On “Dear Life”: An Interview with Alice Munro via The New Yorker
The Art of Fiction No.137 – an interview with Alice Munro via The Paris Review
‘Where to start with Alice Munro?’ – recommended reading include Runaway and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship Marriage via A.V. Club (whilst The Millions also has a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro‘)