Paul Greenberg

Julie Bosman of the New York Times came up with a much better description of Mrs. Munro's talent than the generic, almost perfunctory praise from the Swedish Academy, which chooses each year's laureate for literature. It cited her as "master of the contemporary short story." Which is like describing Rembrandt as an accomplished painter in his time. Julie Bosman knows better. In her news story/analysis, she cited Alice Munro's "modesty and subtle wit," a phrase which comes much closer to the mark.

Alice Munro writes the way any genteel Southern matriarch with a sense of politesse and an eagle eye would talk -- understated and perfect. You'd think Mrs. Munro was one of those ladies in a small town somewhere between Lake Village, Ark., and Biloxi, Miss., who's run the bookstore for years while she was raising three daughters. Which is just what Alice Munro of Clinton, Ontario, did while she was composing her masterpieces, which are short only in length. They're never short in depth.

Mrs. Munro knows that a short story isn't just an abbreviated art form that wants to be a novel when it grows up. She said she'd labored under that delusion for years before realizing the short story has an integrity of its own. No one who knows her work -- or John Cheever's -- will ever make that mistake again.

No writer need ever apologize for a fine short story, though there are innumerable novels published that sorely need apologizing for.

When the people at the Swedish Academy finally tracked her down to give Mrs. Munro the good news, they found her visiting one of her daughters in Victoria, British Columbia, an idealized version of a British seaside town, complete with carefully tended flower gardens and a high tea at the Empress Hotel that would compare to any in Victorian times.

When the press asked her for a comment on her Nobel, she said, among other more than gracious things, that she hoped her award would bring more attention to Canadian writing. As usual, the lady was engaging in understatement. Her work not only redeems a national literature but the short story itself.

It takes only a little imagination to hear Anton Chekhov, the great Russian short-story writer and playwright, beam with satisfaction at this news, and in his always concise fashion, sigh: At last!


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.