Today, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. We thought many readers might want some suggestions about how to get started with reading Alice Munro. The below is our primer on reading Alice Munro from our book, Start Here: Reading Your Way Into 25 Amazing Writers. This chapter was written by Ben Dolnick, whose new novel is At the Bottom of Everything.
Alice Munro (b. 1931) is a modern master whose medium is the short story. Her sentences and stories are admired perhaps most of all by other writers, and her portrayals of women are some of the greatest to have ever appeared on the printed page. In 2009, Munro, a Canadian, won the Man Booker International Prize which recognizes outstanding achievement in world letters much like the Nobel, save that it is awarded only every other year.
Alice Munro, Canadian short story writer extraordinaire, is close to that point in her career when she becomes so universally acclaimed that it will become difficult to read her without a little angel of Literature piping up on one’s shoulder. “Masterful, isn’t she?” this bespectacled angel will murmur, in a voice like Frasier Crane’s. Truly Chekhovian.
Don’t get me wrong: She deserves every bit of praise she gets, and if the Nobel committee doesn’t get around to honoring her before she dies, it’s the prize that will be diminished. Despite being second to none in my Munro-mania, though, I cringe a bit when I think of her joining the pantheon. Reverence has a way of sliding into distance — I imagine hushed crowds gazing obediently from behind a museum’s velvet rope — and Munro is a writer who demands to be as close to you as your t-shirt. The subjects she writes about — heartbreak, embarrassment, sickness, lust — aren’t the least bit grand or remote. Once you’ve read a bit of her, you’ll be shoving her books into your backpack for train trips, keeping them by the bed for sleepless nights. She’s too good — too strange, too funny, too sad — to be approached with a curator’s white gloves.
Therefore, I’m going to focus on three Munro stories that showcase the parts of her that prize committees tend not to mention. These are stories to read on the steps outside the Museum of Literature, while smoking a cigarette or eating a hot dog.
1. Start with the title story from her second book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971).
Lives is one of Munro’s rare hybrid creatures: It’s got the head of a short story collection and the body of a novel. Munro published it in 1971, before she’d quite reconciled herself to a career as a pure short story writer; this was, she says, the book that convinced her that she wasn’t meant to be a novelist after all. Read article....