I hadn’t heard of Alice Munro until last week, which is actually my fault, not hers.
The Canadian short story writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because the committee considered her to be a “master of the modern short story.”
It came as a surprise. How come I hadn’t heard of her before? Now into her 80s, (she was born in 1931) Munro retired recently from writing, but has been at it since her first short story collection was awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1961. She has won it three times altogether, along with the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for a lifetime’s work. One Canadian critic considers her to be “our Chekhov.”
My only excuse is that one can’t possibly get to know all the good writing, fiction and non-fiction, that have been published all over the world over the past few decades. Far from being threatened with extinction faced with the ebooks threat, more and more books keep getting published in English each year.
Not having read her work, I can’t make any critical assessments. But fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood was full of praise following the Nobel announcement. She writes: “Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. She’s been accorded armfuls of super-superlatives by critics in both North America and Britain. She’s won many awards, and she has a devoted international readership. Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones. She’s the kind of writer about whom it is often said – no matter how well known she becomes – that she ought to be better known.”
Munro has published ten collections of short stories, tottaling 90-100 stories altogether. Her Nobel makes one aware that the short story medium can be as powerful as the novel, though it has always languished in the shadow of its more prestigious sibling. Most of the best-known novelists have distinguished themselves with short fiction, ranging from Tolstoi and Dostoevsky to Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence and Rabindranath Tagore.
But Munro belongs to a select group of writers who have specialised in the short story genre, though she has published one novel (a group which includes Catherine Mansfield and H. H. Munro, or ‘Saki’). That explains why it has taken her so long to get the recognition she deserves. Apart from anything else, she was born into a socio-economic milieu in which earning a living from writing (particularly short stories) was impossible. Canada itself was something of a backwater when it came to fiction. Even in the 1960s, there were very few Canadian publishers.
Margaret Atwood sums up the situation succintly: “Or you could do art as a hobby, if you were a woman with time on your hands, or you could scrape out a living at some poorly paid quasi-artistic job. Munro’s stories are sprinkled with women like this. They go in for piano playing or write chatty newspaper columns. Or – more tragically, they have a real though small talent, like Almeda Roth in ‘Meneseteung,” who produces one volume of minor verse called Offerings, but there is no context for them.”
Munro was born in a region sprinkled with small towns. As Atwood notes: “Through Munro’s fiction, Soweto’s Huron County has joined Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County as a slice of land made legendary by the excellence of the writer who has celebrated it, though in both cases “celebrated” is not quite the right word. “Anatomised” might be closer to what goes on in the work of Munro, though even that term is too clinical.”
"A good writer produces universal literature, no matter where the desk and computer might be placed on the globe. After reading the above passage, I realized that Munro’s Huron country describes us, as well as people living in the subcontinent, because this region ranks high in the list of those where ‘silence and secrecy are the norm in sexual matters.”
But we don’t have a single writer who can write about it with the honesty of Alice Munro"
Atwood says further: “Munro’s artistic characters are punished for not succeeding, but they are punished also for success. Honesty, in Munro’s work, is not the best policy: it is not a policy at all, but an essential element, like air. The characters must get hold of at least some of it, by fair means or foul, or – they feel – they will go under.
“The battle for authenticity is waged most significantly in the field of sex. The Munro social world – like most societies in which silence and secrecy are the norm in sexual matters – carries a high erotic charge, and this charge extends like a neon penumbra around each character, illuminating landscapes, rooms and objects. A rumpled bed says more, in the hands of Munro, than any graphic in-out, in-out depiction of genitalia ever could. Munro’s characters are as alert as dogs in a perfume store to the sexual chemistry in a gathering – the chemistry among others, as well as their own visceral responses. Falling in love, falling in lust, sneaking around on spouses and enjoying it, telling sexual lies, doing shameful things they feel compelled to do out of irresistible desire, making sexual calculations based on social desperation – few writers have explored such processes more thoroughly, and more ruthlessly.”
A good writer produces universal literature, no matter where the desk and computer might be placed on the globe. After reading the above passage, I realized that Munro’s Huron country describes us, as well as people living in the subcontinent, because this region ranks high in the list of those where ‘silence and secrecy are the norm in sexual matters.”
But we don’t have a single writer who can write about it with the honesty of Alice Munro.
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