July 2009

Arts & Letters

Brought to Booker

By Delia Falconer
Man Booker International

“I’ve been lucky to be considered a major writer by writing short stories,” Alice Munro told the Observer in 2005. And, the publicity-shy Canadian writer joked, “at least it gets me out of the Booker Prize.” Munro was speaking of the original Booker Prize (since 2002, the Man Booker) for best novel, having been short-listed just once, for her loosely novelistic 1979 work The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose. But she spoke too soon. Later that year the prize spawned a new biennial award for lifetime achievement, the Man Booker International Prize, awarded first to the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare and, in 2007, to Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. On 27 May, Munro won it.

The original Booker Prize was established in 1968 by the Booker-McConnell company, a colonial sugar colossus, with the express purpose of creating for English-language fiction the cachet of France’s Prix Goncourt. It is awarded to the best novel in English written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen (one sometimes forgets this restriction) and published in the UK. Much of the allure and popularity of the award lies in its combination of the literary and the glittery; celebrating the ideal of the Great Novel and its own shameless ambitions.

The past decade and a half has seen the inauguration of a Russian Booker (established in 1992; the association ended in 2005), the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker (both won by Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children), the Man Asian Literary Prize (inaugurated in 2007; though not officially part of the Booker enterprise, it is popularly known as the ‘Asian Booker’), and the £60,000 Man Booker International, open to writers of all nationalities, by invitation only, and awarded for an author’s oeuvre. But – bad news for a writer like Japan’s Yoko Ogawa, author of more than 20 books that have won every prize in Japan, though only two have been translated into English – the work must be available in English. This is a problem as literature in translation dwindles; the award’s sponsors, however, have said that part of the reason for the new prize is to encourage English translations.

There is perhaps another motivation beyond tilting at the Nobel for the establishment of the Booker International: the original prize was starting to look at times less like a prize for an individual book than a de facto award for an author’s career. John Banville, for example, whose scintillating The Untouchable was inconceivably overlooked for the 1998 Booker (it did not even make the short-list) won the prize in 2005 for The Sea – Banville Lite. It is also worth pointing out that around the same time that the Booker International came on the scene, a shift occurred in the Booker short-lists toward the inclusion of more early-career and first-time writers. The last six years have witnessed two of the four victories by debut novelists in the prize’s history (DBC Pierre, in 2003, and Aravind Adiga, in 2008), and 2008’s list was particularly remarked-upon for including more lesser-known authors and a wider variety of genres.

But how do you judge a writer’s entire oeuvre, and how do you compare it to another’s? Do you judge on evenness, for example, or flashes of feral brilliance? The calibre of the writers on this year’s short-list was outstanding: alongside Munro and Peter Carey were Evan S Connell, EL Doctorow and Joyce Carol Oates from the USA; and Mahasweta Devi, James Kelman, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arnost Lustig, VS Naipaul, Antonio Tabucchi, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Dubravka Ugresic and Ludmila Ulitskaya (from, respectively, India, the UK, Peru, the Czech Republic, Trinidad, Italy, Kenya, Croatia and Russia). The administrator of the prize, Fiammetta Rocco, provides a fascinating fly-on-the-wall glimpse into this year’s judging process. “Arguments flew back and forth,” she reports. “Was James Kelman’s Glasgow writing a personal attack on the reader, or did his unique social vision make him the Maxim Gorky of our day? And what about VS Naipaul? Was he Charles Dickens or RK Narayan, or an insufferable egomaniac whose only subject is himself?”

Conditions were promising for the 77-year-old Munro. It is possible to see a surge of popular consensus around the turn of the millennium, almost but not quite amounting to a campaign, that she had not received her due. In a long 2001 profile in the Atlantic, Mona Simpson noted that “when educated general readers talk about the great living fiction writers, Munro isn’t consistently mentioned with Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike.” In the Paris Review, the American storyteller Lorrie Moore criticised a tendency to view Munro’s writing, usually set in small-town rural Ontario, as provincial. Munro’s unabated interest in writing about female characters whose artistic impulses are thwarted may not have dented her credibility either, contrary to her supporters’ claims; it dovetailed so suggestively, for an age increasingly fond of the ‘personal story’, with her own biography. A reluctant mother, she became a writer despite growing up in a hardscrabble family with little time for esoteric achievement.

Munro’s proud embrace of her outsider status was also part of her appeal as a guardian of the local and traditional. “I’m a kind of anachronism,” she has said, “because I write about places where your roots are and most people don’t live that kind of life any more at all. Most writers, probably, the writers who are most in tune with our time, write about places that have no texture, because this is where most of us live.” It is fascinating to imagine how Munro’s self-declared plainness would have appeared in the judging room next to the joyful stylistic pastiche, the combination of real and imagined characters, and the left-liberal historical ambitions of Doctorow. Did their work go head-to-head? Literary gossip was certainly laying odds on the judges going for a North American this year after a run of ‘exotics’.

Eventually each judge, awarding the writers a mark out of five, selected Munro’s work. Jane Smiley described it as “practically perfect”, a view echoed by Fiammetta Rocco, who enthused that Munro “never makes a wrong move, never writes a bad story”. They also followed a critical trend in praising her short stories for showing more economy than some novels. Yet in pitting copybook consistency against the profligacies of the novel, their praise also drew attention to the weaknesses of Munro’s oeuvre.

This odd boundary dispute between short and long fiction has long been fought over Munro’s writing, which has been celebrated for its “novelistic” amplitude, divagation and attention to minor characters. Her stories can be lengthy – the story ‘Carried Away’, at almost 21,000 words, is not that much shorter than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – and fall fairly clearly into a North American tradition of longer short stories. What is more unusual is their much-admired compactness of plot: ‘A Wilderness Station’, for example, covers a century in 30 pages. The author herself proudly claims: “I haven’t read a novel that I didn’t think couldn’t have been a better story.” The result is short fiction of particular density, which always feels purposeful and controlled, filled out to its edges. Even Munro’s sentences are packed tight: pebbly with detail, gimlet-eyed, somehow inevitable.

Munro is most often compared to Chekhov, and at their best her plots are worthy of the compliment. In the marvellous title story in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), for example, a housekeeper travels to marry a man on the basis of fake letters concocted by her boss’s daughter. Yet when one thinks of Chekhov one has an instant sense of spaciousness, of wilful energy; of stories that almost seem, at times, to have a pulse. Munro’s stories, as deftly crafted and precise about relationships as they are, lack the airy quality of “lifeness”, as the critic James Wood puts it, of Chekhov. Their sure-footedness, their evenness of voice, can make her work feel claustrophobic.

And is writing after all a matter of efficiency? I would argue that the humanity of Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, whose pace seems to reflect the span of a life itself, outweighs any lapses in his oeuvre. Yet this is the pleasure of such prizes. They introduce us to new writers and encourage us to reread, reassess and converse.

Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.

Cover: July 2009

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