Today the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro was woken up by her daughter to find out that she had indeed won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature – not a bad way to start your morning! As other various online news resources will recapitulate, Munro is a “master of the short story”, is often compared to Chekhov, yadda yadda, other articles (like this) will explain things better than I will because I can’t really comment much further on Munro herself having not read her stuff. Being somewhat aware of her mastery and reputation as a bigshot of contemporary short story writing, I have been meaning to read her short stories for a while but my local library never has her work there whenever I go. All I can really say is that I think that this year is a welcome choice not necessarily because of any triumph of nationality or departure from politics, or indeed because she is the 13th woman to win the prize out of 112 years, but because the short story has a potential chance to step out of the shadows of the novel.
Short stories are always under-appreciated in comparison to novels. It is very true that they are much harder to publish than other types of literature but does this mean that short stories will be flying off the shelves thanks to Alice Munro’s recognition? I doubt it, to be honest. Only time will tell, but even in terms of receiving public recognition for her kind of works, Munro and other recipients of the Nobel Prize are not treated in the same way as those from other popular literary prizes such as The Man Booker Prize (particularly in the Commonwealth): recipients of the latter see much commercial success and marketability of their works compared to the former but the Nobel Prize recipients are argued to garner a more credible literary recognition that will be treated well throughout history. Munro’s achievement probably won’t make short stories any more publishable or favoured over other novels right now, but nevertheless her even furthered international recognition is a great feat that can last historically.
Both prizes are obviously subject to debate about their real literary merit and have both undergone much controversy over many years concerning who has (or hasn’t) won. The Nobel Prize, in particular, faces barrages of criticism almost every year, some of it justified. There will always be unpopular opinions on who should win, as it natural with just about anything ever, but when you pass over Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and Graham Greene in favour of two nobodies chosen from within the Nobel Committee itself (Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson in 1974), you’re in trouble. Rumour has it that Martinson killed himself from the worldwide backlash.
Other choices in the past have similarly stirred the butters of what constitutes literary merit. I can’t help but feel that there is a certain awful self-consciousness when it comes to selecting a Nobel Prize winner, as obvious choices have in the past been trumped by completely out-of-the-blue or compromised candidates. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it smacks highly of selecting for all the wrong reasons, for the sake of adhering to some allegiance to a misplaced elitist literary credibility. I guess my own reservations about literature being for everyone rather than for a select elite or niche few affects my view on this. Some “duds”, according to Wikipedia, include John Steinbeck in 1962 and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004, who were picked out as “the best of a bad lot”, or whose inclusion “ruined” the reputation of the Nobel Prize respectively. I’m not saying these are bad writers (I enjoy Steinbeck) but the ways in which candidates are selected seems contrary to the values of the Prize.
But obviously there is some good to the Nobel Prize. From tracing Nobel Prize winners, I have discovered the likes of José Saramago, Halldór Laxness and J. M. G. Le Clézio, who have become among my favourite authors and whose works have inspired me in many ways. There is obviously some sort of legitimacy in most of the chosen winners.
Basically, as far as I see it, the Nobel Prize is a bit of a laugh. It’s always fun to try and pre-empt who will win and why and whatever. I am amused by the fact that Bob Dylan has seriously been considered a strong candidate (but if Churchill won in 1953, anything is possible!) and I feel somewhat confused that Haruki Murakami has been the bookies’ favourite twice now. He is a very good author, but I just don’t see him as lofty Nobel Prize material. The Nobel Prize for Literature will always be a bit fishy, whether it’s because of a candidate’s favourable political leanings (Vargas Llosa, Sartre & Mo Yan vs. Borges) or because of their obscurity over popularity (Tranströmer vs. Rushdie). But it doesn’t mean that the Prize isn’t significant. It’s often right, and often wrong, but that’s just the game, yo.
What I will close with is that Alice Munro seems like she deserves it. She seems like a nice, down-to-earth lady, and her choosing wasn’t down to anything contrived. Though she has decided to put down the paper and pen for good, her response to receiving the Prize is just awesome: “it’s nice to go out with a bang”.