STOCKHOLM — If there were a literary prize higher than the Nobel, Alice Munro would probably win that, too.
"Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones," fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood once wrote. "She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said — no matter how well known she becomes — that she ought to be better known."
Munro, 82, was cited by Nobel judges Thursday as a thorough but forgiving chronicler of the human spirit, and her selection marks a couple of breakthroughs among prize winners. She is the first Canadian writer to receive the $1.2 million award from the Swedish Academy since Saul Bellow, who left for the U.S. as a boy and won in 1976, and the first laureate ever to be fully identified with Canada. She is also the rare author to win because of her short fiction.
"I think my stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories, and I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you'd got a novel written," she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Her books having sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone, she has long been an international ambassador for the short story, proof that the narrative arc and depth of characterization we expect from a novel can be realized in just 30-40 pages. Critics and peers have praised her in every way a writer can be praised: the precision of her language; the perfection of detail; the surprise and logic of her storytelling; the graceful, seamless shifts of moods; the intimacy with every shade of human behavior.
Her stories are usually set in Ontario, her home province. Among her best known is "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," the story of a woman who begins losing her memory and agrees with her husband that she should be placed in a nursing home. Canadian actress-director Sarah Polley adapted the story into the 2006 film "Away from Her," starring Julie Christie.