Alice Munro Wins Nobel, Canadians and Women Feel Quietly Superior

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I was not expecting Alice Munro to win the Nobel Prize this morning, and apparently neither was she; the Swedish Academy has already tweeted that they couldn’t get her on the phone to tell her about the prize. Quoth Margaret Atwood, in return:

Okay,everyone’s calling Me to get me to write about Alice! (Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone.)

It turns out that Munro’s daughter was the one who told her, after which she promptly got on the phone and gave the most understated overwhelmed response ever:

Can this be possible, really? That seems to me dreadful that there are only 13 of us.

Insert lots of jokes about how Canadian this all is. Even the Canadians are telling them. I would say something about how this makes me feel as a Canadian, except that kind of open, breast-beating nationalism feels horrifically embarrassing to me at the best of times (like these), so I’ll just wave my tiny #humblebrag flag on Twitter.

I don’t think you’ll find there’s much controversy about Munro’s win. Oh, sure, Munro has a detractor or two, but they are far fewer in number than her legion of admirers, who span everyone from Cynthia Ozick to Cheryl Strayed to (and though I haven’t been able to track down where I read this, I’m quite sure it’s right) even the Great Philip Roth Himself.

Ozick is generally credited with calling Munro “our Chekhov,” which most agree is an apt comparison. It’s the fact that Munro’s stories are short and narrowly drawn that makes them so precise and thus able to cut like a very well-honed knife. Munro stands, generally, for the idea that just because the ostensible subject of your story is small, that doesn’t mean it’s without big implications, or even big effect.

As my high school English teachers drilled into my head relentlessly, that “small can be big” idea is a metaphor for Canada (in a sense, of course). But it’s also one for so-called “women’s writing,” so women writers are another constituency you’ll hear a lot from on this today. Sometime around the middle of the last century, someone noticed that male literary critics had a habit of disdaining the “smallness” and domestic preoccupations of most women’s stories. That old sawhorse still gets periodically trotted out in the increasingly frequent conflicts over women’s place in English literature, but it’s been mostly discredited. And a good part of the reason why is Alice Munro; her stories were so good that they have become a kind of shorthand for what’s achievable.

Another good part of the reason why that argument never worked, by the way, is that it’s stupid — content doesn’t “make” fiction on its own, execution does, and that involves some kind of alchemy of form and content that literary critics still scramble endlessly to define. For the rest of us, who find the precise formula for “good fiction” something of at best academic interest, well, we’d rather be spending our time reading the actual (now Nobel-winning) stories themselves. Because all the best things Munro has to teach us can be accessed directly just by reading them.