It was announced yesterday morning, October 10, 2013, that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (And they notified her by leaving a phone message when they couldn’t get hold of her. Imagine dialing into your voicemail to hear THAT news?) I learned about it within minutes of getting to work, when one of my colleagues, another English teacher, passed me in the hall and said, “Hey, how about Munro’s win?” Once he clarified what he was talking about, I danced in place, raising my fists in the air and whooping as if my team had just won the world series.
I felt giddy all day over the news, and the reasons are twofold. I love Munro as a writer; I read her for the first time during my first semester of graduate school, when (I think, if I’m remembering correctly) her short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage was assigned as reading in a fiction workshop I was taking. I went on to read several of her other collections after that. Her stories are, simply put, wonderful. They are some of the most utterly effortless and organic stories I’ve ever read that flow and ebb easily, as if these people were actually living their lives on the pages in front of us. Nothing seems scripted, nothing seems overly stylized, nothing comes off as being a device or as being part of the author moving chess pieces around. They are full-bodied and completely satisfying stories that are literary without being pretentious.
More than that, however, her win made me dance because she’s accomplished what nowadays feels almost impossible: She has created a career that has been both financially lucrative and critically acclaimed from writing short stories. Gone are the days of James Joyce and Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, where publishing in magazines was the way to solidify and advance your literary career. As anyone bumbling their way through an MFA program (like I did a couple of years ago) will tell you, short stories are given only the slightest modicum of respect or, really, attention, and then only in certain circles.
Writers love short stories. We love writing them. We love reading them. No one else does, really. Writing short stories is not the way to “make it” as a writer. You have a few outliers to this equation who achieve popular success with their short stories, but it’s rare and difficult. Magazines very rarely pay to publish short stories and when they do it’s next to nothing (the professional rate is literally five cents per word); it’s also incredibly hard to get a publisher to accept a short story collection manuscript unless you already have a novel published and again, if they do accept it, the advance is very low. The pressure from publishers to write novels is ubiquitous, with the chorus of “Do this if you want to be successful” loud and clear.
Alice Munro, who is Canadian and has been referred to as the greatest living writer, has been an inspiration to me ever since I discovered her, and, more surprising, discovered that plenty of my non-writer friends read and liked her too despite the fact that she only writes short stories. Her Nobel Prize win is much-deserved and I’m happy for her, but almost more than that, it provides hope to those of us still tapping away on our keyboards with neat little 20-page story arcs, dreaming of our short story collections flying off the shelves and, hell, maybe one day being a Nobel Prize winner. Munro is proof that it can happen.