/ 11 October 2013

Long and short of literary genius

Bang on: Canadian author Alice Munro.
Bang on: Canadian author Alice Munro.

"The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2013 is awarded to the Canadian author Alice Munro, ‘master of the contemporary short story'." 

That pithiness would certainly be approved by Munro, perhaps the greatest and most economical short-story writer since Anton Chekhov. Her admirers, including me, are delighted. And more: we are amazed because each year we have harboured the improbable hope that she would win the greatest literary prize of them all. But that seemed an impossible dream given that the short story often gets short shrift in the esteem of critics and in literary prizes.

The general bias of the high literary establishment against short stories and short fiction is difficult to fathom. After all, Chekhov, Franz Kafka and Nadine Gordimer are counterweights to charges that the short story cannot possibly be freighted with the profundity of the novel. Gordimer's Nobel in 1991, with the citation "who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity" was a partial nod to the short story.

Of course, Munro has not gone unrecognised: she is a three-times winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction and winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work. But it is the Nobel that is the greatest acknowledgement, and which issues the sharpest rebuke of the prejudice towards shorter fiction in the history of the Nobel and in the literary world at large.

The Nobel has come at an acutely poignant time for Munro. Her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, died in April; they had been married since 1976. A few months after his death, Munro in effect announced her retirement. On June 13, minutes after winning the $20 000 Trillium Book Award for Dear Life, her 2012 collection of short stories, she told Canada Post reporter Mark Medley: "It's nice to go out with a bang."

She added: "I'm probably not going to write anymore … I can have people around a lot more, because I'm not always chasing them away so I can work on my novel. My non-novel, I mean." 

That tart reference to novels might have contained a hint of regret, though it is more likely a wry and ironic reflection on how her work has been received and debated.

Those who have appreciated her work claim that Munro's stories carry the emotional profundity of novels. Indeed, is she a master of the short story, or of the novel disguised as a short story?

To read or reread Too Much Happiness, her 2009 collection, is to confront whether these are short stories that think they are novels or novels that think they are short stories. And the collection forms an integrated examination of life and why it is(n't) worth living. 

That biggest existential question of all is at the core of a lifetime of work that has been rooted in and grown from the small and the everyday, and it is in that particularity that her genius resides.