CanLit aglow thanks to Munro

Alice Munro’s Nobel win should be judged on the merits of her storytelling, not nationality

Alice Munro’s many works are receiving more international attention following her win.
Alice Munro’s many works are receiving more international attention following her win.

Sylvia Söderlind

Alice Munro has done Canadian literature a great favour by winning the Nobel Prize.

As a returning Swede, I’ve had the unmitigated pleasure of finding myself in the midst of a newfound interest in all things Canadian among the Swedish reading public.

Although Munro has long had a devoted following and has had many of her works translated into Swedish, there was a general sense of delighted surprise when the news broke that the Prize was awarded to a Canadian, a woman and, perhaps above all, a short story writer.

The short story genre has an even lower profile in Sweden than in North America (we don’t have a New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly) and some commentators prefer to see Munro’s prize as a kind of posthumous correction of the failure to give it to Anton Chekhov. The search for a male progenitor, to lend weight to the Swedish Academy’s decision, reflects its continued sexism.

In a literary talk show on Swedish television, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, the body that decides who wins the Nobel Prize in literature, took pains to point out that “Alice Munro represents nothing, not women, not Canada.” What she does represent, according to the Academy’s concise motivation, is a narrative form; she’s “a master of the short story.”

Yet the media seem intent on making Munro represent Canada, a nation about which very little is known, although both Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are more widely-read and more commonly translated.

This insistence isn’t unique in the case of Munro; the nationality of Prize winners is always given particular attention. It’s as if the Prize has to have a wider national significance, as if it must involve a means for Swedes (and others) to learn something about a distinct national culture — and the lesser-known that culture, the greater the interest in learning about it.

In the case of Munro, this desire has several consequences. For instance, Swedish reporters have paid scrupulous attention to the Ontario in which she sets most of her stories. They have travelled to Wingham, interviewed neighbours and friends, walked the streets and inhaled the early fall Ontario air.

Inadvertently, then, the desire for national representativity perpetuates the Ontario-centrism that has so often been challenged by the east, the west and north of Canada.

This has been exacerbated by a homage to Munro by Margaret Atwood published in a Swedish daily. Atwood here places her colleague with a group of writers from Southwestern Ontario — Robertson Davies (mistakenly translated as Robert Davies), James Reaney, Marian Engel and Graeme Gibson.

Although it’s true that these writers come from a similar background, they are hardly the ones that come to my mind when I think of Alice Munro. The only one still living on Atwood’s list, Graeme Gibson, is her husband, and hardly a name that easily trips off the tongue when I’m prompted to name an Ontario writer. Situating Munro in an Ontario tradition is, I believe, misguided.

To my mind, there’s another more distinctively Canadian tradition in which she fits more snugly: the small town narrative. Whether it be her own Wingham or Davies’s Deptford, Ontario, or Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka, Manitoba, they all somehow echo both each other and Sinclair Ross’s Horizon, Saskatchewan.

Although demographically and topographically distinct, the small town in each of these cases offers an arena for the exploration of the relation between individual desires and social expectations in a restricted world.

Although this genre is far from dead (think Miriam Toews) it’s hardly central to contemporary Canadian writing — if by contemporary one means the last 25 years. There’s no doubt that Alice Munro is a remarkable writer and she’s been awarded the Prize after a long and distinguished career, but to label her as representative of contemporary Canadian writing seems belated. Perhaps the most Canadian moment in all of the brouhaha came when Alice Munro’s joy at winning the Prize changed into horror when she heard that only 12 women had preceded her as literary laureates. She invited the press to pay more attention to women and Canadian writers.

I hope they will do so while taking care to read them as representative of nothing other than good writing. That her Nobel has helped raise the profile of Canada and its literature is Alice Munro’s gift to her country, her colleagues and their future readers.

Sylvia is a retired English professor living in Sweden.

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