By Mark McConaghy
We woke up this morning to the wonderful news that Alice Munro has become the first female Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In our age of digital frenzy, there has already been an immense outpouring of celebration for the author and her life’s work. As Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime publisher put it this morning on CBC radio, all of Canada is celebrating today.
Yes, we finally have a Nobel Laureate- our Chekov, master of the short story, a part of the canon of global literary excellence, to be anthologized as representative of our nation for years to come.
On this day we’ll be forgiven for indulging in some good old-fashioned cultural nationalism. We don’t often get to in Canada, for a variety of complex reasons, so we should take advantage of it when we do.
Here at the 14th Floor we could not be more happy to hear the wonderful news. Though the award is first and foremost meant to honor the quiet excellence of Alice Munro as a writer, one can’t help but embrace its wider implications. For today it is not just Munro, but in fact the cultural project she is a representative of- that long battered, exceedingly self-conscious national-literary movement known as Can Lit- that has received some small measure of international recognition.
The implications of the award on the larger overall development of humane letters in Canada remains unknown. But as we celebrate today, one can’t help but make a few speculations. Here are three things to think about as we all rush to bookstores and libraries to celebrate Mrs. Munro and her accomplishments:
1) One Canadian has Won the Nobel Prize in Literature- Now Lets make it Half a Dozen in the Next Three Decades
Munro said it best this morning when interviewed about the award: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy too that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”
And that is ultimately what is at stake in an award like the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is no doubt that it brings global cultural prestige to not only the writer who wins it, but to the entire national-literary apparatus that nurtured such a talent. There is much cause to complain about the elitist, often Euro-centric nature of the Nobel literary prize: why should a closed-door jury selected by the Royal Swedish Academy be the gatekeepers as to what constitutes literature of world value? Just how would one go about defining what a literature of global-value even looks like? Literary value, like everything else in life, is historically determined and in many ways exceedingly relative.
As an ardent champion of an (until recently) long overlooked modern literary tradition (the Chinese New Literature), I am deeply sympathetic to many of the criticisms that can be launched against the Nobel prize.
But, sniping aside, the prize still represents a moment where global interest can be generated in an author and the national-literary tradition he or she represents. And this is why today should open up a much deeper conversation. While we celebrate Alice Munro we should also ask ourselves: how can we foster the next great Canadian literary talent? How can we strengthen the economic foundation of Canadian letters? How can we make the name Can-Lit ring out across the world as a fundamental cultural export, an exacting mark of a critical, socially engaged society?
2) Munro’s Award Does not Meant that all is well in Canadian Publishing
Despite the momentary interest in Can-Lit that this award will no doubt bring, we should remember that these are difficult times for domestic literary production in Canada. As noted author Charles Foran has argued in a recent piece in The Walrus:
These are dog days in the book business, and some are pronouncing them end days as well. The “dream,” as headlines would have it, of a vigorous independent publishing industry has died, felled by a cabal of assassins. Depending on who is pointing the finger, they include the rise of ebooks and Amazon.ca; too many titles for too few buyers; the routing of supportive independent booksellers by Chapters/Indigo; the impossibility of competing with deep-pocketed multinational publishers for authors and market space; and, more cosmically, the atomization of everything, especially attention spans, in our digital world.
As I have argued elsewhere, we still need a scalpel-sharp literature of social critique in this fractured age of existential exhaustion. Yet it is against the backdrop of the slow death of independent publishing in our country that we need consider the importance of Munro’s award. How can a nationally reliable and economically profitable book-business be developed in Canada in the 21st century? Without support from publishers and cultural agencies, the reach of even the most talented of authors will no doubt be diminished considerably.
In the short term, we should buy as much Canadian literature as possible. For in culture, as in any other industry, the flow of capital determines all. In the long run, we need to think about how this award can galvanize us into producing a new golden age of Canadian letters. And for such a golden age to emerge, we need to seriously think about the the social and economic infrastructure that Canadian publishing in the 21st century will revolve around.
3) Munro as Model for Young Writers in Our Times
When one thinks of Alice Munro as a writer and cultural figure, the words humility and diligence immediately come to mind. This was a woman who first got married in 1951, raised three daughters, lived in both corners of the country, ran a bookstore, experienced divorce, re-settlement, and re-marriage, and never stopped developing her craft. From her first short story collection,1968’s Dance of the Happy Shades, to her most recent offering (2012’s Dear Life), Munro has steadily woven a subtle tapestry of intricate tales, many of them focusing on the complexities of gender, family, and history in rural Southern Ontario.
Today, all young writers should take note of the example Munro has provided us: remain committed, stay focused, and keep a gritty tenacity in the face of all of life’s ups and downs. And never, ever, stop developing your craft.
One cannot write for celebrity, fame, or fortune. Certainly there are far easier ways to achieve all those things than to invest oneself in a lettered life. A writer must write simply because they have to- because they feel that compelling, urgent desire to express themselves, as if they have something caught in their heart that they have to work out, over and over again, until the alacrity and the pain somehow subside.
Munro’s quiet diligence- turning mundane Southern Ontario communities into the stuff of deeply revelatory human observation- is a model for us all.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books.
Featured Image Source: Los Angeles Times