Where were you when you heard that Canadian uber-fiction writer Alice Munro has withdrawn her latest collection of stories, Too Much Happiness, from consideration for the annual Giller Prize? (The Giller is the Canadian literary award that has more money attached to it than any other Canadian literary prize: $50,000, that is.) That Munro has done so was announced on Friday, August 28 (“Alice Munro pulls book from Giller,” CBC). “Black Friday” to me.
When I heard the news, I sat at my desk pondering her decision. My gaze was fixed on one wall of my Booklist office, the wall upon which hangs one of my personal treasures. In 2008, I published a critical study, The Fiction of Alice Munro, and my publisher, Praeger, located a lovely portrait of the lovely lady done in acrylics by a Canadian artist, and the Praeger productuion team used it on the jacket of my book. Through the artist’s generosity, I obtained the original, and it hangs, framed, on my office wall. My shrine to Queen Alice.
She is my favorite contemporary fiction writer. I love the short-story form, and Munro made it okay for a serious fiction writer to not write novels. To know anything about Munro is to be quite aware that awards have come her way one after another, including two previous Giller Awards (in 1998 for The Love of a Good Woman and in 2004 for Runaway, both of which I highly recommend), as well as Governor General awards (equivalent to the Pulitizer Prize in the U.S.) and American awards, too, including from the National Books Critics Circle. This year she was given only the third Man Booker International Award, in honor of her body of work, an award that has been given every two years since 2005.
Her new collection is, in a word, stunning–one of the best of her many excellent collections. The reason she gave for removing it from Giller consideration is to give a younger writer a chance to win. (Munro is 78.) Implied in that reason, of course, is that she is fully aware that a book of hers is an automatic high-contender. Is she being artificially or genuinely gracious, pulling her book out? What would I have done; what would you have done?
I sat and stared at my beloved portrait of her on my wall. The articles in the Canadian press that sprang up in the two to three days subsequent to her announcement have indicated that her publisher is behind her in this decision. My initial reaction was, there’s nice and then there’s stupid. Grab as many awards as you can, Alice. I would. Life is short; get ‘em while they are available.
One of the articles in the press indicated there was disappointment in the Canadian literary community that her withdrawal would mean no award-night excitement over a showdown between Munro and Margaret Atwood, the “other” Canadian goddess of letters and another likely Giller nominee this year. (The Giller is announced at a formal evening event, like our Oscars.) I spoke silently to my portrait of her: “Come on, Alice, don’t let Margaret beat you out. You know you’re better than she is. Stay in the running; do it for me.”
Do it for me? Who do I think I am? Well, just an ardent fan who wants as many people as possible to read her books. Alice smiles benevolently down on me, and I realize she knows what’s best for her. Go ask Alice. She knows what to do in a situation like this. And I know what to do, too: keep reading and loving her (and knowing in my mind she would have beat out Margaret Atwood).