October 11, 2013
When the news came Thursday that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize in literature, only the 13th woman to earn that honor, a lot of her admirers reacted like football fans whose small-town team had freakishly, though deservedly, won the Super Bowl.
Really? Not Philip Roth? Or Bob Dylan? Or Haruki Murakami? Go Alice!
As one of those astonished admirers, I cheered out loud at the news, and, like countless other cheerleaders, I posted it on Facebook, where an acquaintance promptly responded, "Someone who writes so incredibly well as to win the Nobel Prize, but I've never heard of her. How is that?"
There are good reasons you may never have heard of Alice Munro.
She has been widely praised and reviewed since she published her first story collection in 1968; such well-known writers as Jhumpa Lahiri ("The Lowland") and Elizabeth Strout ("Olive Kitteridge") cite her as a major influence.
But Munro, who's 82 and Canadian, doesn't do big book tours, never has. Her short stories don't feature an ace detective, graphic sex, adorable dogs, guns, dystopias, vampires, self-help aphorisms or Ivy League graduates brooding and having affairs in Brooklyn and Manhattan. She doesn't clobber you with edifying facts or politics.
Munro's writing is a quiet seduction. There are no literary pyrotechnics, only the feats of clarity and concision, suspense grounded in ordinary emotion, surprise endings that spring from plausible twists of fate.
For almost half a century, Munro has written mostly about women, typically young women who want to live beyond the strictures of their Canadian farms or small towns, who set out into the wider world in search of love, sex, drama, purpose, meaning.
These young women find themselves duped or duplicitous or both. They make choices that lead them to unexpected and often unhappy places. They grow up, grow old. They remember and forget. They learn to make peace with the life that, one choice at a time, they've built.
Munro's titles alone suggest the nature of her stories and the emotion they evoke. To name a few of her 15 books:
"Friend of My Youth." "Open Secrets." "The Progress of Love." "Too Much Happiness." "Runaway." "Dear Life."
Munro grew up in rural Ontario and lives there today, and in some ways resembles the characters she creates.
"I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was 'call attention to yourself' or 'think you were smart,'" she told a New Yorker writer, in a recent, rare interview.
She took to writing anyway. The first writers who moved her deeply, she once told the Paris Review, were women from the American South. Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. They showed her she could write about small towns, rural people, the marginal.
"The mainstream big novel about real life was men's territory," she said. "I don't know how I got that feeling of being on the margins, it wasn't that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn't know quite what it was. ... I was often disturbed by writers' views of female sexuality."
It's that quality of "me too," coupled with stories that take us to new places, that so many readers respond to in Munro's work. Her settings and situations may be nothing like our own lives — that's part of the appeal — but the deep, subtle emotions she evokes are ones we recognize.
If you've never read Munro and want to start, I'd suggest her 2004 collection, "Runaway," or her last collection, "Dear Life."
After the publication of "Dear Life," Munro said she was retiring from writing, and the final four stories in that book are, she says, as much as she'll say about her own life.
The last lines of the last story offer a taste of how much complexity she can pack into a few simple sentences:
"I did not go home for my mother's last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time."
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