Canada Hits Literature Gold Standard Short Story Writer Alice Munro Causes a Nation to Gush over Nobel Prize

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TORONTO -- Speak the name Alice among Canadian readers and writers, and no last name is required. The cliches abound but are no less sturdy for that. Short-story writer extraordinaire Alice Munro is "Our Chekhov," a "national treasure."

So, when it was announced Thursday that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, Facebook and Twitter lit up like Toronto's Skydome when the Blue Jays won their first World Series in 1992. Eyes teared with pleasure. The collective national heart swelled with joy and pride -- a suitably restrained pride; anything more would be un-Canadian. The collective national head is beaver-busily examining what this might mean for Canadian Literature, often referred to as CanLit.

Ms. Munro is the first Canadian -- unless you count Saul Bellow, and he himself wouldn't; this most American of American writers left Canada when he was 9 -- to win literature's ultimate prize. And that has to make a difference, n'est-ce pas?

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not much loved by the arts community, weighed in with a statement: "Munro is a giant in Canadian Literature, and this Nobel Prize further solidifies Canada's place among the ranks of countries with the best writers in the world."

So is this prize significant for Canada, and Canadian writing, like -- as some have claimed -- winning the gold medal in Olympic hockey?

For novelist Margaret Atwood, herself recipient of a major international prize (the 2000 Booker Prize for "The Blind Assassin"), the prize is, as she put it in an interview Thursday, "vindication of the fact that Canada has a literature, that we have great writers."

For Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious award for fiction (Ms. Munro has won it twice, and has also been a juror), her win "serves notice that Canadian literature is on a par with any writing in the world. Every sentence she writes is a gem. And she's not only an outstanding writer, she's an outstanding human being."

But for Andre Alexis, a novelist, critic and playwright, the honor is tinged with sadness. "I realize it's often awarded late in a writer's career, but this feels literally valedictory." And indeed, Ms. Munro has said her most recent book, the quasi- autobiographical "Dear Life," was to be her last. Most people figure that, at 82, she has earned the rest.

But as Mr. Alexis points out, this is hardly the first time CanLit has made an international splash. Michael Ondaatje, Ms. Atwood, Carol Shields and Yann Martel ("Life of Pi") have all won major literary awards.

While Canadians everywhere are rejoicing, this country's writers and critics are thinking about the Munro legacy.

For Mr. Alexis: "Canadian writers have learned to judge ourselves against her. She's been hugely influential in raising the standards of our literature. What the Nobel signifies is that, since she has been our standard of excellence, that standard is now recognized internationally as a gold standard. …