5 reasons Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

Merit trumped politics this year when modest, retiring, universally admired Canadian author Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Munro is known for her “fantastic portrayal of human beings.”

As a Nobel Prize in Literature winner, this year’s recipient is unique. Alice Munro is one of the few Canadians, women, and short story writers ever to win the prize. Ms. Munro is often credited with revolutionizing the short story, bringing her experience growing up in rural Canada to her work, including her award-winning “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” The Nobel committee noted that the Canadian author's “texts often feature depictions of everyday but decisive events, epiphanies of a kind, that illuminate the surrounding story and let existential questions appear in a flash of lightning.”

For the compassion, insight, and subtle humor for which her stories are known, Munro is universally loved. Here are five reasons that she won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

1. Quite simply, her work is excellent.

Few writers are so identified with their particular craft as Munro is with the short story. Renowned for perfecting that form, Munro has previously been awarded many honors for her works, including a National Book Critics Circle prize for “Hateship.” She is also a three-time winner of the Governor General’s prize, Canada’s highest literary honor.

Admiration for Munro, known to be a modest, retiring writer, is universal. Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Munro is known for her “fantastic portrayal of human beings,” and that “She has done a marvelous job.”

Salman Rushdie called her “A true master of the form.”

2. Merit trumped politics in this year’s selection.

In recent years political motivations have appeared to play a role in the Nobel Committee’s choice of recipients. For example, last year’s winner Mo Yan was largely seen as a political statement on the Chinese Republic.  As the Atlantic notes, “some critics have long charged that the Nobel is awarded for a strange brew of politics and obscurity as opposed to actual literary merit.” By choosing Munro, the Nobel committee chose a universally beloved, renowned, and recognized writer known more for her literary chops than for her political stance.

3. The Nobel capped her career.

At 82 years old, Munro has indicated she is reaching the end of her career. She had told Canada’s Globe and Mail that she planned to retire after “Dear Life,” her 14th story collection. As such, both she and Philip Roth, who also announced his retirement late last year, were under intense speculation for this year’s prize, as The New York Times reported. That is because the Nobel Foundation does not award its prize posthumously.

“Not that I didn't love writing, but I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way,” Munro said in an interview with the National Post earlier this year. “And perhaps, when you're my age, you don't wish to be alone as much as a writer has to be."

It is, in other words, a fitting finale to a fantastic career.

4. The prize brings attention to Canadian writers.

Munro is the first Canadian writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature since Saul Bellow, who left for the US as a boy and won the award in 1976. As such, she will be credited with bringing the spotlight to a nation not typically known for its literary talent.

(The US, which has not brought home a Nobel in literature since Toni Morrison won in 1993, continues its losing streak.)

In a statement from Penguin Random House, her publisher, Munro, who lives in Clinton, Ontario, said “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

5. The prize also marks the arrival of the short story.

By and large the literary community tends to value the novel above the short story. Until now. By awarding Munro, known as the master of the short story, the Nobel, the committee has elevated the short story.

“We're not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages – more than an average novel writer can – but also that she can cover ground,” said the Nobel Committee’s Englund. “She can have a single short story that covers decades and it works."

Speaking with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Munro said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

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