Award something like the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the first instinct, understandably, must be to honor work that makes a “difference.” Thus, as many commentators noted last week, the committee often has cast its bright light on poets and novelists with a political bent, up against tyranny, inequality or poverty.
When the award does go to someone writing in a more traditional way, telling stories about how ordinary lives are lived, the hope is, the committee gets it right, recognizing someone who truly elevates the form. It certainly did so on Thursday in awarding the prize to Alice Munro, the dazzling Canadian teller of short stories.
You would think in today’s Twitterized world (got 140 characters?) the short story would be fiction on the rise, readers with time for dozens of pages rather than hundreds. If it is going to flourish, Munro is the one to lead the way. What shines about her work is the depth and subtlety of her seemingly simple prose. She is economical yet rich in detail, in a handful of words conveying or suggesting so much more.
Think of Henry James. He reflects a revolution in writing, a century or so ago, taking literature to the interior of the mind, lingering on the psychology of characters, peeling back layers, amplifying on such elements as foggy memories or fleeting impulses. Munro has brought a similar achievement to the short story, yet with a rare accessibility, her wide following drawn to her digging, her insights into such things as self-deception, love, heartbreak and the unexpected.
The Nobel committee looks to recognize a lifetime of work. It is fitting thus that the 82-year-old Munro recently announced she had stopped writing stories, her 14 published collections making a difference in helping us see and know ourselves.