Boyd Tonkin: Infinite riches in two little rooms

The Week In Books

Just when we had good reason to fear that fiction in the English-speaking world had succumbed to a vulgar blight of High Concepts and Big Themes, two big prizes have rewarded the smaller virtues that alone make language into art. On Wednesday, Marilynne Robinson took the Orange Prize for Home, the third finely crafted and patiently worked novel in a career that saw a 24-year gap between her debut, Housekeeping, and its successor, Gilead. A week earlier, the Canadian doyenne of the perfectly-wrought short story, Alice Munro, had won the third Man Booker International Prize against a field of contenders that sported some louder talents, from VS Naipaul and Peter Carey to Mario Vargas Llosa.

Both victors sometimes labour under the rubric of "writer's writer", although "reader's writer" would far better catch the intimate sense of satisfaction that they always give. Both eschew fashion and follow their own path, delicately excavating the layers of memory and desire that lie buried behind the most humdrum and limited of lives. Both remain proudly provincial, able to extrapolate a universe of feeling from the small towns and suburbs of the Mid-West (Robinson) or south Ontario and the Canadian Pacific coast (Munro).

Both make the language of North American English stride and sing. No one could ever miss the Biblical rhythms and allusions that stiffen the spine of Robinson's Gilead and Home. But the language of scripture also plays a part in the inner lives that Munro unveils - especially when, as in the recent The View from Castle Rock, she revisits her Scots migrant ancestors and their battles with creed and conscience (Munro is a decendant of James Hogg).

Although a decade separates their ages, neither author will see 65 again. And both – by the way – are women who know that enduring fiction carries the duty, and the privilege, of seeking the grandest epic and tragic emotions in anybody's kitchen or backyard. Both know, to quote Marlowe, how to find infinite riches in a little room.

I suspect that one other factor links the filigree art of this uncompromising pair. Neither could hope to survive, let alone flourish, in the sort of publishing culture that now prevails in North America and – even more so, perhaps – in Britain. However much acclaim a strong debut might attract, the idea of leaving a quarter-century between one's first and second novel would currently have outraged publishers spluttering into their budget Sauvignon. Between 1980 and 2004, Robinson published only an anti-nuclear tract, Mother Country (on the Sellafield re-processing plant), and a somewhat abstruse essay collection, The Death of Adam. These days, agents and editors would give up in despair before a tenth of her fictional lay-off had expired.

Munro's commercial crime is, if anything, even more heinous. She writes short stories. And, incorrigibly, she goes on writing them, from the blissful Lives of Girls and Women in 1971 through a dozen further collections to the partly-autobiographical View from Castle Rock in 2006. This autumn we can look forward to a new volume, Too Much Happiness. As critics make plain, these stories often fall into family groups (literally) or thematic patterns. The same characters may re-occur. They have a coherent architecture that leaves the reader with a sense of twinned unity and diversity. The whole does add up to more than the sum of its parts.

All that would cut no ice with today's market-conscious print entrepreneurs. They look with deep suspicion on any fictional form that can't easily be promoted as a full-length novel. So this repeat offender bears – in the UK even more than across the Atlantic – a mark of book-trade shame. That makes her Man Booker International honour even more welcome. After its far-sighted awards to Ismail Kadare and Chinua Achebe, here is one big-bucks prize that shows every sign of operating with a mind - and a vision - of its own.

P.S.Amid all the anniversary articles devoted to the Tiananmen Square massacre, don't forget that China's 1989 trauma and its legacy have given rise to a majestic epic novel: Ma Jian's Beijing Coma. I will be chairing an event with the exiled Ma (left) and his translator Flora Drew at the British Museum on Saturday 20 June. It forms part of the London Review Bookshop's "World Literature Weekend" from 19-21 June, in association with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Beijing Coma was shortlisted this year). Other highlights will include Hanan Al-Shaykh (see p. 30) talking to Esther Freud, French rising star Faiza Guène, Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and – centre-stage for once - an all-star panel of translators who have won the Independent prize. More details from www.lrbshop.co.uk; credit-card hotline for bookings: 020 7269 9030.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there