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Alice Munro wins Man Booker International Prize

Canadian writer Alice Munro, whose short stories set the small towns and rural communities of Western Ontario and the Canadian Pacific Northwest have been recognized for decades as among the finest in contemporary fiction, has been named the recipient of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, it was announced on Wednesday in London.  Peter Carey, E.L. Doctorow, Mario Vargas Llosa, V. S. Naipaul, and Joyce Carol Oates were among the thirteen other finalists for the award.
The prize, which is awarded for excellence over a writer's career body of work rather than a single novel or collection of stories, is presented biennially to a living author who has published work in English (or work generally available in English language  translation) that has made a major contribution to fiction on the world stage.   The most recent (2007) winner, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, appeared in Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel Reading Series last September.
Munro was selected by a jury of international authors chaired by Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist Jane Smiley, who told The Guardian that the selection process had been a challenging one, but that Munro's stories "just won us over".  "Her work is practically perfect. Any writer has to gawk when reading her because her work is very subtle and precise," said Smiley. "Her thoughtfulness about every subject is so read [her] is to learn something every time that you never thought of before."

As an indisputably major writer working in a form that is generally undervalued in consideration for top literary awards, Munro's work has been "discovered" by successive generations of readers.  As her friend and peer Margaret Atwood has written, "It's as if she jumps out of a cake – Surprise! – and then has to jump out of it again, and then again."

Perhaps the English language's greatest living "traditional" short story writer--that is, one that does not question the narrator's point of view or foreground the materiality of language--Munro works in a spare, but not self consciously minimalist style, writing stories with a convincing degree of detail and a carefully crafted, almost novelistic degree of depth.  Many of her best known stories--I'm thinking of "Passion" and "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" which appeared over the past decade in The New Yorker--move toward the kind of sudden realization, revealing detail,  or "epiphanic moment" that is consistent with the model of narrative developed by Anton Chekov.  Cynthia Ozick,  herself a master of the short story form, has long referred to her simply as "our Chekov." 
Born as Alice Ann Laidlaw in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario, the three time winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award in fiction left college and moved with her then husband James Munro to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1951.  She raised three daughters, and by 1968, published her debut collection of stories Dance of the Happy Shades, which brought her her first Governor General's Award.  When her first marriage ended in 1972, she returned to Ontario to become Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario.  In 1976 she married geographer Gerald Fremlin and the couple moved to the Huron County farm community of Clinton, Ontario, where many of her stories are set.

Her acclaimed 2006 collection The View From Castle Rock was widely thought to be her last compilation of new stories, but earlier this year Random House announced that a new collection titled Too Much Happiness would be published in October of 2009.  The Man Booker International Prize, which carries a cash award of 60,000 pounds (or about $96,000) will be presented to her at a ceremony at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland on June 25th.
--R.D. Pohl



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