60 Second Guide to Alice Munro: 2013 Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature
Alice Munro, the 82-year-old Canadian author, is one of the greatest short-story writers of our time. The Swedish Academy, which on Thursday morning awarded Munro the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, simply said that she is a “master of the contemporary short story.” Her short tales are always finely tuned, filled with psychological realism, swerving on a moment of epiphany that makes her the heir to Chekhov—indeed she is often considered the Canadian Chekhov—and James Joyce’s The Dubliners. She has never written a novel, but her stories are often deeper wells than many thousand-page novels. Her characters are small-town Canadian women struggling with strained relationships and moral dilemmas, and Munro penetrates those characters’ extraordinary private histories in moments of crises—she can portray the full span of a turbulent life through an event or two. Munro’s “reputation is like a good address,” the critic James Wood famously said. “Nobody bothers anymore to judge her goodness.” The latest Nobel makes her acclaim pretty much universal. She also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, and judges said, “To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.”
Munro is the 13th woman to win the Nobel literature prize. The last woman to do so was Herta Müller in 2009. According to the sports betting firm Ladbrokes, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was the favorite to win this year's award, with odds at 5-2. Munro was second on the list, with 4-1 odds.
Munro was born July 10, 1931, in Wingham, in the Canadian province of Ontario. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a farmer. She studied journalism but stopped when she got married in 1951. The couple opened a bookstore in Victoria, British Columbia, and at the age of 37 she published her first collection of stories in 1968, Dance of the Happy Shades. She has three daughters with her first husband, James Munro (they separated in 1972). She moved to rural Clinton, near her childhood home in Ontario, with her second husband Gerald Fremlin, a geographer who died in April. When the Swedish Academy tried reaching her Thursday morning to bring her the news and to do its traditional phone interview with the winner, there was no answer. "Left a phone message," @Nobelprize_org tweeted. "Still voice mail..." Her daughter later woke her up to tell her the news, and Munro told the CBC, "It's the middle of the night here and I had forgotten about it all, of course,". She called the honor "a splendid thing to happen." In a statement from her publisher Penguin Random House, Munro said that she was “amazed, and very grateful.”
Munro is the first Canadian-based writer to ever win the Nobel literature award since it began in 1901. The 1976 winner Saul Bellow was born in Canada, but as a youth emigrated to Chicago, and is largely considered an American writer. It's been 20 years since the last American writer, Toni Morrison in 1993, won the Nobel. Last year's winner was Chinese novelist Mo Yan.
Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), Friend of My Youth (1990), Open Secrets (1994), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004)—all short story collections. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) became the basis of the 2006 film Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley. Munro said her last book was 2012’s Dear Life.
From our review of Munro’s last collection, 2012’s Dear Life, written by Mythili Rao:
Postwar men and women reaching for normalcy parade across the pages of Dear Life. An editorial note points out that in this collection, Munro has taken the unusual step of revising the endings of stories that have been previously published. Still, the collection betrays no real shift from the Canadian writer’s signature style. Her protagonists are tight-lipped and their worlds are sharply-observed. Their emotional lives loom larger than their fates and are frequently tragic, especially when Munro turns her attention to the mind’s shortcomings. “In Sight of the Lake” watches an elderly woman try to make her way to a doctor’s appointment; she has arranged to see a specialist because she suspects her memory is failing. Munro cuts off her search for the doctor’s office with an eerie abruptness that seems to confirm the reader’s worst fears. The title story, “Dear Life,” is a similarly melancholy remembrance of a childhood in rural Canada. Abandoning conventional plot structures (“this is not a story, only a life”), the narrative takes the shape of a lyrical essay. But the narrator’s detailed memories of her house, neighbors, school, and the land, it turns out, present only an incomplete picture of the past. In the end, the distinction between a story and a life might not be so great, after all. As one Munro protagonist puts it, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.”
“I’m probably not going to write anymore,” Munro told an editor from the National Post in June. The incredulous editor had to follow up on whether she really meant it. “Oh, yes,” she said, telling disappointed fans who will miss her new books to “read the old ones over again.” Her Nobel win will send many loyal devotees and new readers to the “old ones.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Munro's first husband had died. We regret the error.