Alice Munro, Master of Scattered Stories, Deserves Literature’s Top Prize

The Canadian author, who once worried about completing novels, captures the incompleteness of our lives

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Peter Muhly / AFP / Getty Images

Alice Munro holds one of her books.

When the Swedish Academy revealed this morning (their afternoon) that Alice Munro had won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, the announcement had the feeling of something Munro herself would have written: utterly correct and true, though you wouldn’t necessarily have gotten there yourself. Things like this:

“We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do–we do it all the time.”

Or this:

“Every year, when you’re a child, you become a different person.”

Or just this:

“Life would be grand if it weren’t for the people.”

Speculation swirled, as speculation does, around Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Adonis and Joyce Carol Oates, but as soon as Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary, said it, no other choice seemed possible.

“It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it,” Munro, 82, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation this morning. “It’s more than I can say.” Munro lives in Clinton, Ontario, not far from where she grew up. In June, she told an interviewer that she had probably retired from writing, and that her latest book, last year’s Dear Life, would be her final one.

The academy’s decision is deeply satisfying in any number of ways, even aside from being correct. Munro is a woman, only the 13th to win the award since it was first given in 1901. Munro being a Canadian, the choice splits the difference nicely between American self-loathing and American self-congratulation. The last winner from the United States was Toni Morrison in 1993, and it’s been 6 years there was a winner who even wrote in English: the last five recipients were Chinese (Mo Yan, 2012), Swedish (Tomas Tranströmer, 2011), Peruvian (Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010), Romanian-born German (Herta Müller, 2009), and French (Jean-Marie Gustave de Clézio, 2008).

If anything could be said to be controversial about Munro’s win, it’s the fact that she’s primarily a short-story writer—she’s written thirteen story collections and one novel. Munro’s calling as—in the words of the Nobel citation—a “master of the contemporary short story” was something she herself had to reconcile herself to, at least initially. “It’s very hard to wean yourself away from this bits-and-pieces feeling if all you’re leaving behind is scattered stories,” she told the Paris Review in 1994.

But Munro writes about incompleteness—the impossibility of completing anything, and the fragmentariness of our understanding of other people and even ourselves.

“People’s lives… were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable,” she wrote in her novel Lives of Girls and Women, “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” As a result the short story form was fundamentally fused with her own view of life and the world, and when she embraced it it became not a compromise but a deep source of artistic power. “I have all these disconnected realities in my own life, and I see them in other people’s lives,” she said, in her Paris Review interview. “That was one of the problems—why I couldn’t write novels. I never saw things hanging together any too well.”