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Munro revives tradition

Jefferson ChaseOctober 10, 2013

For the first time ever, a Canadian woman has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 82-year-old short story writer is anything but a political author, which probably worked in her favor in Stockholm.

Alice Munro.17.05.2011) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Nobel Literature Committee is a well-known lover of surprises, so the most surprising thing about the choice of Alice Munro as this year's honoree is that she's no surprise at all. The Canadian has long been regarded by her peers as an absolute master of short fiction. Author and critic Cynthia Ozick once even called her "our Chekhov."

Munro's literary reputation was so beyond question that English betting shops made her one of the favorites ahead of Thursday's decision.

And yet before now, Munro has been an author more widely praised than read. One reason for that may be the fact that although she's published 14 uniformly excellent volumes of short stories, she's never produced a true novel.

Another may be that the 82-year-old author doesn't hog the limelight. Munro is a writer's writer and not a talk show fixture with an opinion about everything under the sun.

The 2013 Nobel laureate is an author in the traditional mode, with a focus on literary quality. But who is Alice Munro, and why did the Nobel decision makers decide to honor her with the world's most prestigious literary prize?

A daughter of the Canadian provinces

Canada's Alice Munro books, the Nobel laureate in literature 2013, are displayed at Swedish Academy
Alice Munro has been publishing short stories since 1968Image: Getty Images/AFP

Munro was born in the small village of Wingham (population 2,875) in Ontario, Canada, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) northwest of Toronto. Her father raised fox and mink for their fur, while her mother taught school. She married in 1951 and moved with her new husband to Victoria, on Canada's West Coast, where they ran a bookshop.

Munro's work is set mostly in the provincial Canada where she grew up, and not surprisingly her stories deal with everyday lives. Her protagonists are often girls or young women, and Munro is far more interested in human emotions and romantic and familial relationships than in earthshaking events in society.

Case in point: a trilogy of short stories from her 2004 collection "Runaway." In it Munro tells the story of a fairly average woman. In the first story, she meets the man who will eventual father her (illegitimate) child. In the second, she learns that her aged father is separating from her mother, who is on her deathbed. In the third, she goes in search of her estranged daughter who is now grown up.

That sounds unspectacular, and it is. What's extraordinary is Munro's gift for depicting the emotional state of her protagonist indirectly, using precisely observed details. Show, don't tell, is traditionally rule number one of narrative fiction, and Munro clearly took it to heart at a young age.

You won't find much zeitgeist or many seismic political shifts in Munro's work. You will find vividly drawn portraits of often lonely and psychologically damaged individuals.

A return to authorial handicraft

In honoring Munro, the Nobel Prize Committee passed over a pair of far better known novelists: popular Japanese fabulist Haruki Murakami and Jewish-American satyr-turned-social- chronicler Philip Roth, aka "The Man Who Just Can't Get Any Respect in Stockholm."

Munro's book at S.Fischer stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Munro's German publisher was quick to hype the new Nobel laureateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The committee members were likely influenced by the fact that no Canadian woman had ever won the award. Author Saul Bellow, born in Quebec, was honored by the Nobel committee in 1976. Nonetheless, this award falls under the apolitical category.

In the previous two years the prize has gone to obscure authors - China's Mo Yan and Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer - whose influence on world literature can be described as modest at best. Even her rivals will applaud Munro winning the award. Her skill as a writer is beyond all doubt.

The Nobel committee may also have wanted to pay tribute to the genre of the short story, arguably the most difficult in all of fiction, which often exists in the shadow of its big brother, the novel. One could debate whether Munro's services to the genre are more significant than those of Irishman William Trevor, but no one can question her skill with the short form.

In awarding Munro the 2013 Nobel Prize, the decision makers have foregone surprises this year and may be signaling a return to more traditional criteria of literary excellence. And that, many fans of literature may feel, is a welcome change.