For Nobel laureate Alice Munro, the subject is ‘simply life itself’

by Ben Dolnick

The Washington Post

In describing Alice Munro, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote: “She’s the kind of writer about whom it is often said — no matter how well-known she becomes — that she ought to be better known.”

Atwood’s dictum will be put to the test now that the Canadian short story writer, 82, has won the Nobel Prize for literature.

There is almost certainly no living writer who inspires quite the reverence among readers — and writers — that Munro does. Mention to a serious bibliophile that you like her, and the conversation will shift into a solemn, almost embarrassingly private register, as if you had interrupted cocktail party chatter to reveal a family secret.

That this love seems always to be revealed with some surprise has mostly to do with the fact that she writes short stories. Her collections — thirteen books of them, as of her retirement earlier this year — have been issuing from Canada as steadily as weather bulletins since “Dance of the Happy Shades” in 1968.

Thus there is no single mountain peak — no “The Corrections,” no “American Pastoral” — to which one can assuredly point and say, “Read this and you’ll understand.” Ask a Munro fan which book to start with, and he will reply: “Well, have you read ‘The Beggar Maid’? Oh, but what about ‘Open Secrets’? Or maybe ‘Hateship, Friendship’ . . .?” Pretty soon your suitcase is brimming with her essential works.

Her publishers have tried, at various points, to cull the bounty. Everyman’s Library published a handsome volume of her “Selected Stories” in 2006. Vintage did the same in 1997, and then again, more sparingly, in 2005.

Prize committees have done their parts to introduce her to the world as well — she won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998, and enough Giller prizes that she decided a few years ago to take herself out of the running.

But her books are just as much at home on the table as on the dais. She is an author you read on the train, you read in bed, you read in happiness, you read in grief. She is, perhaps more than any writer since Chekhov, with whom she is constantly, and aptly, compared, an author whose subject is simply life itself.

In her second book, “Lives of Girls and Women” (1971), she wrote something like a credo for those who cherish this type of writing: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

But even among writers — a notoriously discontent lot — there is none of the typical carping or second-guessing going on about her Nobel.

Among the revelers is the short story writer Jim Shephard, who said: “I imagine fiction writers everywhere today are celebrating the Nobel Committee having gotten it exactly right. There’s probably no one alive who’s better at the craft of the short story, or who has done more to revolutionize the use of time in that form, the result often being a 20-page story that demonstrates the breadth and scope of a novel.”

Elizabeth Strout, author of “Olive Kitteridge,” opined: “Alice Munro taught me things about writing that are immeasurable; she has dared in a quiet, steady way, to go places of deep honesty.”