Unimagined homelands

A week after Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature ‒ a mild surprise to the literary world, and to the British bookmakers who picked Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami as a 5-2 favourite ‒ her short story collections are reportedly selling faster than most local booksellers can re-stock them. The Nobel committee hailed the 82-year-old writer as a “master of the contemporary short story” confirming decades of critical opinion that she is one of the few modern writers who can be compared, unblushingly, to Anton Chekhov. Shortly afterwards, to the joy of those Canadians who had long celebrated her work, she became a national and international bestseller.

Most of the surprise at her victory —  Munro herself could barely credit the news — arose not from doubts about her artistry, which is beyond dispute, but because of the general literary neglect of the sort of story she had made her own, the patient excavation of what the critic James Wood calls rural Canadian “lower-middle-class gentility” in which “characters steal their lean solitude from the thickness that surrounds them.” Within some of the more cultivated parts of the publishing world there was hope that the prize might restore attention to a form of literature that has become increasingly marginalized in recent years, displaced by appetites for what has been called the “global novel.”

Ms Munro’s quiet settings and tightly-focused domesticity are far removed from the sort of transcontinental fictions currently in vogue. As the literary critic Pankaj Mishra recently observed, “Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis,” and it is often peopled by characters with exotic names and postmodern inclinations. The door-stoppers publishers are willing to spend large sums of money on are increasingly stripped of the linguistic richness that might impede translators and rarely focus exclusively on too particular a locale, or delve into the sorts of local political questions that engaged a previous generation of writers. The long overdue elevation of Munro’s perfectly observed miniatures is an indication of the fatigue at the sort of fiction written by more marketable internationalists like Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie.

West Indian writers like Olive Senior and Earl Lovelace — and the emerging group of younger writers (including several of this year’s Guyana prize winners) who try to write exclusively about their local reality — should read Munro’s late success as a sign that quality can still trump literary fashion. Instead of trying to create work that can be translated painlessly into foreign markets, local writers would do well to cultivate their attention for their immediate reality. Admittedly, this reality often involves migrations and the reconciliation of multiple identities, but an honest reckoning with these complexities, with all of their linguistic and cultural nuances, is nearly always preferable to the abstractions of global and historical fictions. Thirty years ago Salman Rushdie spoke of the “imaginary homelands” that were being created by the roving artists of the newly globalized world. This year’s Nobel prize is a welcome reminder that lasting art can also spring from writers who use their skill to present what is in front of them, as imaginatively and truthfully as possible.

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