Nobel Prize 2013: Win for shame-busting, truth-telling Alice Munro is also a victory for women authors and the short story itself

She can encapsulate an entire life within a dozen pages

Share
Related Topics

Hailing the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature with a gender-blind turn of phrase, the Swedish Academy today praised Canadian author Alice Munro as a “master of the contemporary short story”.

Speculation over the past few days had seen foes of the Academy sharpening their knives for a routine assault on the secretive institution as a friend of (to them) obscure and unread figures. Romanian novelist Mircea Cartarescu, Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse and - most recently - Belarussian documentary writer Svetlana Alexievich had all surfaced as possible favourites. In the event, the Academy kept up its reputation for surprise by picking a globally acclaimed, popular and accessible English-language writer - as it has since the millennium when bestowing the prize (worth eight million Swedish kroner or £770,000) on Doris Lessing, VS Naipaul or Harold Pinter.

Born Alice Laidlaw to a hard-pressed farming family of Scottish and Irish origins in rural Huron County, Ontario, in 1931, Munro studied at the University of Western Ontario. She married James Munro, later a bookseller, while still a student and did not complete a degree. The couple had four daughters but divorced in 1976; she married her second husband, geographer Gerald Fremlin, in 1977.

Munro published her first collection of stories - Dance of the Happy Shades - in 1968 and her 14th, Dear Life, in 2012. Over those 45 years, the “Canadian Chekhov” has won both critical reverence and the loyalty of fans across the world for stories that can encapsulate a life within a dozen pages, and for a tender but unsparing gaze on the ordinary events that assume giant dimensions in all our lives.

She underwent heart surgery in 2001 but the new millennium ushered in some of her boldest and frankest work, in collections such as Runaway and Away From Her. In 2009, she won the biennial Man Booker International Prize for career-long achievement.

After her husband’s death this April, she announced that Dear Life would be her final book. In response, American novelist Jane Smiley wrote: “Thank you for your unembarrassed woman’s perspective on the lives of girls and women, but also the lives of boys and men. Thank you for your cruelty as well as your kindness, because the one plus the other is the essence of truthfulness.”

Fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood, who acknowledges Munro as a shame-busting, truth-telling pioneer, has stressed the broad life-spanning perspective in her tales: “She writes about the difficulties faced by people who are bigger or smaller than they are expected to be. When her protagonists look back… the older people they have become possess within them all of the people that they have been. She’s very good on what people expect, and then on the letdown.”

Her Nobel accolade counts as a victory for women authors, for Canadian literature and for the often-marginalised art of the short story. Not since Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 - another author who began with the narrow horizons of life in small communities and lent them a universal resonance - has a figure best known for short fiction taken the prize.

Professor Aamer Hussein of Southampton University, acclaimed for his own novellas and story collections, commented that “Alice Munro has consistently produced excellent short fiction in the 45 years she’s been writing. And the key word is short: more than anyone in the Western world, she’s kept the short story alive as a vibrant, developing form.”

Munro has written that “what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting”. Now the world’s most solemn literary honour has gone to a modest, immaculate but far-sighted miniaturist. That ringing endorsement of a viewpoint and an art-form that more pompous literati might brand as “domestic” will, for some, be a shockingly radical gesture in itself. Never write off the Nobel.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

C# .Net Developer

£23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

Electronics Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul
 

Believe me, I said, there’s nothing rural about this urban borough’s attempt at a country fair

John Walsh
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor