So, Alice Munro, a Canadian woman writing short stories, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This award is especially interesting because it seems to actually be for literary achievement, rather than some political gesture towards some obscure unknown writer from a foreign country. It’s also a relief that they didn’t give it to Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, American writers who have been at bat the last couple of years. [And forgive me if I don’t go into reasons why I’m glad about that.] No Literature Nobel has been awarded to an American writer since Toni Morrison in 1993, I’m told.
I confess that I have tried to read Alice Munro’s short stories many times. In my bookshelf, I found a used copy of “Alice Munro’s Best” with a Foreword written by her Canadian writing compatriot, Margaret Atwood, the yang to Alice Munro’s yin personality. Truth be told, I had as hard a time getting through Atwood’s piece as I did the first couple of Munro’s short stories. The one about working in a slaughterhouse cleaning out turkeys by hand almost did me in, although I did marvel at the astringency of Munro’s descriptions.
I mean, I’m going to keep on reading through that volume beside me on the couch because I earnestly want to understand what all the fuss is about. Sometimes I find myself engaged in the beginning of the story, only to have my mind wander off when things get so convoluted I don’t care about the character anymore. I also want to say that I find myself LIKING Alice Munro because she writes about women and the situations we find ourselves in, looking for “distant pieces of ourselves” while taking care of children and minding the hearth. She carefully avoids describing herself as feminist, which I also understand and applaud. Because what she writes about that we women handle everyday in our lives over time goes way beyond feminism. Feminism has been a useful political tool and something around which frustrated women rally around, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what it’s like to be a woman, if you know what I mean. And many of you do, I think. So good for Munro for avoiding that easy trap.
Two articles about Munro’s Nobel appeared in the NYTimes today. One, carefully crafted by Michiko Kakutani, a literary critic who is respected and also vilified for her acerbic critiques of writers and writing. She gave a brutal review of work by Jonathan Franzen who retorted with something like, “She’s the stupidest person in New York City,” but hey, that’s the literary world we live in now. In any case, even Michiko is on Munro’s side this time.
What I found interesting is that this Nobel prize for literature comes to Munro at the age of 82 and a few months after her second husband passed away in April of this year. What a pity he’s not around to see her win this accolade. She has three daughters, though, who must be excited about this award. She’s also been or being treated for cancer and has had bypass surgery. In the other article today, she’s quoted as saying as a response to the Nobel:
“In a brief interview with Nobelprize.org, Ms. Munro explained that she had decided to stop writing because she had been working since she was about 20 years old. ‘That’s a long time to be working, and I thought, maybe it’s time to take it easy,’ she said, ‘But this may change my mind.”
One of Munro’s most frequently quoted sentences is: “The constant happiness is curiosity.” I second that for sure.
Kudos to Alice Munro for having written short stories her way, establishing along the path, a “new art form” that is even hailed by novelists, those most difficult of writers. She said she was just practicing writing in the shorter form, getting ready for writing novels someday, but never did. That’s a good thing for us readers, I guess, although I’m still working my way through a volume of her short stories today.