Sometimes the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature makes me go "Hmmm." Sometimes it makes me go "Ah." Occasionally it makes me go "Who?"
But this year it made me say "Hallelujah!"
The Nobel committee announced Oct. 10 that the prize, with its $1.2 million award, would go to Canadian writer Alice Munro, whom they compared to Anton Chekhov as a master of the short story.
The prize is a splendid end punctuation to her career — Munro, 82, announced when her 14th story collection, Dear Life, was published in 2012 that it would be her last book. (The Swedish Academy has announced that Munro will not attend the Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm because of poor health.)
She has written fiction, over a span of more than 40 years, exclusively in the short form, creating stories that are as rich, textured and complex as novels. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Co. after winning the Nobel, she 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."
In her fierce and tender tales, Munro unveils the depths of human experience in situations shallow readers might dismiss as "domestic." When I think about my response to reading her stories, it's often something like standing close to a bolt of lightning.
Munro is widely admired by other writers; among many accolades, one elegant and insightful tribute to her, published in the Guardian, was by fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood (MaddAdam), herself a great writer. Of course, there's always a contrarian, in this case aging literary brat Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), who tweeted that Munro is "so completely overrated" — then backpedaled when the digital roof fell in on him. Let's see how soon he wins a Nobel.
This is shaping up as a good literary prize season for women. On Oct. 15 in London, a woman near the beginning of her career won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Eleanor Catton, a writer from New Zealand, received the award (with a cash prize of about $80,000) for a book that contrasts with Munro's concise short stories: The Luminaries, a complex 832-page novel set during the New Zealand gold rush of 1866. Catton's second novel, it is not only the longest book ever to win the prize, it's the longest ever to be short-listed. And Catton, 28, is the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker. (Munro won it in 2009.)
In an interview with the Guardian, Catton indicated she is no more likely to take any sexist guff than Munro is, saying tartly, "I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel." I haven't read The Luminaries yet, but glowing reviews that suggest it combines the richness of a Victorian novel with postmodern formal experimentation have my interest piqued.
Catton won the award in the last year that the Man Booker was open only to English-language novels written by authors from the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe. In a controversial change, next year the competition will be open to any novel published in English — including those by American writers.
Here in the United States, the National Book Awards have long been open to books in English regardless of where their authors hail from. When the finalists for the 2013 awards were announced Oct. 16, one of the Man Booker finalists, Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland), was on the NBA's fiction short list, too. (Lahiri was born in London and raised in the United States.)
The National Book Foundation, which gives the awards, this year is offering free digital samples of all 20 of the books that are finalists; download them at nationalbook.org. The National Book Awards ceremony will take place Nov. 20 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. Here are the finalists:
Fiction: Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers; Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland; James McBride, The Good Lord Bird; Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge; George Saunders, Tenth of December.
Nonfiction: Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin; Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields; George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America; Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832; Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
Poetry: Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog; Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion; Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke; Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture; Mary Szybist, Incarnadine: Poems.
Young people's literature: Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp; Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck; Tom McNeal, Far Far Away; Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone; Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected]