woman of letters: alice munro’s nobel prize win
On Thursday this week, Canadian writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In doing so, she became only the 13th woman of 110 Nobel Literature Laureates. The dominance of dead white men is perhaps unsurprising, given the Nobel Academy’s longstanding tradition of selecting writers deemed worthy by the literary canon.
Female writers are often undervalued within cultural discourse and literary hierarchy. This has been demonstrated in the 2012 VIDA statistics on women in literary arts, the similarly damning Australian Stella Count statistics published by the Stella Prize committee, and in the all-male Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlists of 2009 and 2011. In Australia and globally, the work of women writers remains under-reviewed, under-read and under-rewarded.
The marginalisation of writing by women is particularly rampant when their work concerns the domestic sphere and the minutiae of women’s lived experiences, topics which are generally deemed trivial or categorised as existing within a limited, niche interest range. This precedent makes Munro’s win all the more remarkable, as her stories do indeed focus on small moments within ordinary lives. Her concerns were baldly delineated in the title of her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. She writes deftly and honestly of the truest things, and imbues these with wider meaning by evoking the universality of her characters’ experiences.
Munro has frequently been likened to Chekhov, as the master of the contemporary short story. Her mastery and control over the form is breathtaking. To those who would deride the power and necessity of the short form compared to the novel, any one of Munro’s stories offers an eloquent rebuttal.
Writing which is circumscribed, as Munro’s is, by the everyday often creates a critical anxiety. Reviewers panic. This is too narrow, they say, or unambitious; its focus is too small. Certainly these are not accusations that can be levelled at Munro. She is one of the great contemporary chroniclers of human weakness, and her writing is filled with great affection and an objective empathy.
Munro’s Nobel win comes towards the conclusion of a long and remarkable career as a chronicler of modern life. She was born in Canada in 1931. She studied English and opened a bookstore with her husband, James, before publishing her debut collection Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968, at the age of 37.
In the decades, which have followed, Munro’s output has been consistently impressive. She has published 14 short story collections, been the recipient of the O. Henry Award for continuing achievement in short fiction, and in 2009 was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for a body of work. Her Nobel win comes not so much as a surprise, but more with a sense of thoroughly deserved recognition.
Munro occupies a unique place in the pantheon of the great 20th century writers. As evidenced by her last collection, 2012’s Dear Life, the clarity and spark of her prose has not dimmed with time. If anything it has intensified, as she becomes more sure in her abilities, ever less reliant on the conventions and expectations which are generally applied to literary fiction and short stories.
Munro has been at the forefront of a vanguard of remarkable women short story writers, including Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, and this year’s Man Booker International Prize-winner, Lydia Davis. These are authors who not only hold the short form in great control, but make their stories sing.
Munro’s bemused response upon being informed of her Nobel win was charmingly understated and characteristically modest. ‘It just seems impossible,’ she said. ‘It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it. It’s more than I can say.’
Munro’s quiet dignity (‘So splendid a thing’!) is offset by the fierce and steely gaze with which she fixes the subjects of her stories. She is sympathetic to people in all their vulnerability, but pulls no punches in exposing these flaws.
Munro has claimed to be finished with writing fiction, and who can complain if her existent oeuvre is all she will publish? She has achieved a rare state of grace for an author, and her skill is almost universally praised and recognised. She is important to literary culture for her clear and irrefutable demonstration of the value of writing which examines domesticity and the lives of girls and women.