In brief

The Nobel for Alice Munro is an endorsement of the short story's capaciousness.

Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for literature, delighting millions of her readers who have found rich meaning in her stories of the lives of men and women in rural Ontario, Canada. The prize is a reparation on two counts. It shows up the literary prejudice and marketing logic that casts the short story as somehow inferior to the real deal, the novel. It might finally prompt literary critics who tend to file away the work of women writers especially fiction which mines the family and the dense web of human relationships as not important or too narrow, to reassess their silent sexism.

To be a novelist was once Munro's ambition too, but she gave up when she realised that the rhythm of that form was not for her. In her hands, the short story, in the span of two score pages, can thread an entire lifetime, examine its silences and delusions, become what Franz Kafka said great literature ought to be: "an axe for the frozen sea inside us". Her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), was published when she was 36, but it was written over many years some were written when she was a young mother in her 20s, with a baby lying next to her in her crib. Much of the 82-year-old's work since then has been rooted in the small towns and rural community of Ontario, a place where she grew up. The kernel of her story has been the same over years: a girl growing up in a small town chafes against the limits of her life, falls in love and moves away. Her canvas, at once narrow and capacious, summed up by the title of her 2001 collection: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. But she has always illuminated, in stripped, unshowy prose, the frailty of human life and aspiration, the inevitability of disillusionment and the treachery of memory.

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