Alice Munro Wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. This is pretty good news for fiction writers and readers. I must say I am somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t Haruki Murakami (I’ve read all of his fiction and non-fiction), but I understand the Nobel’s decision (they cannot award Nobel prizes posthumously, after all). Here’s the New York Times reporting on Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize:

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy said that Ms. Munro is a “master of the contemporary short story.”

Ms. Munro, who lives in Clinton, a town in Ontario, told a writer from The Globe and Mail earlier this year that sheplanned to retire after “Dear Life,” her 14th story collection.

In a statement from Penguin Random House, her publisher, Ms. Munro said that she was “amazed, and very grateful.”

The best part, and the quote of the day, is her enthusiasm for her fellow Canadians:

I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians.

If you need a place to start, read Munro’s short story “Amundsen,” published last year in The New Yorker. Recommended.

Tyler Cowen also has a good recommendation: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories.

Ed Park’s Short Story “Slide to Unlock”

Ed Park’s short story “Slide to Unlock” in the most recent edition of The New Yorker had an interesting (familiar) beginning:

You cycle through your passwords. They tell the secret story. What’s most important to you, the things you think can’t be deciphered. Words and numbers stored in the lining of your heart.

Your daughter’s name.

Your daughter’s name backward.

Your daughter’s name backward plus the year of her birth.

Your daughter’s name backward plus the last two digits of the year of her birth.

Your daughter’s name backward plus the current year.

They keep changing. They blur in the brain. Every day you punch in three or four of these memory strings to access the home laptop, the work laptop. The e-mail, the Facebook, the voice mail. Frequent-flyer account. Every week, you’re asked to change at least one, to increase the security. You feel virtuous when the security meter changes from red to green.

Your home town backward.

Your home town plus the year you were born.

Your home town backward plus the year you were born.

Olaf Fub 1970.

There are hints when you forget. Mother’s maiden name. First car, favorite color, elementary school.

First girl you kissed—that should be one.

First boy.

Can the hints just be the passwords?

Stop stalling.

First sex. You remember the day, month, year. The full year or just the last two digits?

First concert you attended.

Name of hospital where you were born.

You wonder who writes these prompts. Someone has to write them…

And an ending I wasn’t expecting.

Also, you should be using 1Password.

How Does Great Literature Shape Us?

Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at The University of Nottingham, has a thought-provoking piece titled “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” in The New York Times in which he posits that we need scientific evidence that great literature shapes the human mind (i.e., us):

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.

I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

I don’t think this is something  that will be measured with success for the foreseeable future. I do think great literature shapes us in ways that is impossible to quantify; it is like objectively trying to explain a piece of art. Hence, I don’t disagree with this:

There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.

But what if one could design an experiment to test for rigor in literature’s impact. I think one NYT commenter makes a great point:

The impact of great literature in developing a reader’s moral or emotional sense, depends on the reader’s current state of moral/emotional development, (maturity), and the reader’s efforts in assimilating the literature. And it would seem to follow that the impact of such literature would also vary in both intensity and longevity, in correspondence with the maturity and efforts of the reader. So, in order to study the effects of literature, one would have to take these two variables into account,
and select a group of people whose maturity and efforts were similar enough to constitute a controlled group, and then test the impact of various literature on them,
in both intensity and longevity.

Another thoughtful comment:

It’s not all that hard, really, even if the particular question is the wrong question– why not ask “Does great literature *change* us?”– or is finally unanswerable. The mind, or the brain if you prefer, does a great many things to get itself through the day, and “literature” represents more or less exotic and alien variants of these (often mundane) activities, which are made recognizable and understandable to us. 

We are the things that cathect, and we are evidently quite happy to invest intangibles– ideas, religious beliefs, emotional constructs– as well as tangible objects with mental and emotional energy. That, simply, is the ground of our fascination with literature.

Literature is a form of communication that asks us to invest in ideas and worldviews that may not be our own, and to act as if they are, or could be, ours for the duration. When done well, it prods at one or more of our many limits and seeds our phenomenological ground, whatever that might mean to you. Whether this means that literature *bestows* something that we might value as “good,” or simply tweaks how our poor brains cope with the welter of information the world throws at them, may vary from person to person, or even from moment to moment within the same person. Aesthetic reward and moral enlightenment are not guaranteed, but nor are they forbidden or mutually exclusive. Literature gives us something in which we can invest, and then some moral or intellectual change happens, or does not.

Thinking about this a bit more, and the reason I didn’t title this post with the word “Better” in the title is because that’s such an elitist view. And so, the best comment I read is this one:

Professor Currie begins with an incorrect premise. The purpose of literature is not to make us morally better – nor does it serve an educational purpose to teach us how to live our lives. Literature is not a how-to manual; nor should it ever be placed in the self-help section of a library or bookstore.

The first purpose of literature – and perhaps its over-riding reason why we tell stories – belongs to the author him/herself. Why else would anyone put him/herself through the agony and ecstasy of creation in the first place? 

And the reason that writers write – or painters paint or composers compose – is to bring order out of the seeming chaos of living or reason out of the irrationality of existence. It is to make sense of what the author sees and chooses to define.

As for us readers, we hopefully can share the author’s vision and gain a better understanding of our planet (or galaxy) and those with whom we share it. 

I don’t believe that gaining an understanding of the confusing world we live in is a moral act. I think drawing order out of chaos is a more basic human instinct.

Worth reading Currie’s take and perusing the comments. I will reflect on this topic in a personal post I’m currently composing.

Roberto Bolaño’s Mexican Manifesto

While not as enthralling as his other story “Labyrinth” that I’ve profiled before, Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Mexican Manifesto” was nevertheless an interesting read. The setting is of a couple who goes to a number of saunas in Mexico and partakes in experiences of a certain sort:

In every public bath, there tends to be a fight from time to time. We never saw or heard any there. The clients, conditioned by some unknown mechanism, respected and obeyed every word of the orphan’s instructions. Also, to be fair, there weren’t very many people, and that’s something I’ll never be able to explain, since it was a clean place, relatively modern, with individual saunas for taking steam baths, bar service in the saunas, and, above all, cheap. There, in Sauna 10, I saw Laura naked for the first time, and all I could do was smile and touch her shoulder and say I didn’t know which valve to turn to make the steam come out.

The saunas, though it might be more precise to call them private rooms, were a set of two tiny chambers connected by a glass door. In the first, there was usually a divan—an old divan reminiscent of psychoanalysis and bordellos—a folding table, and a coatrack; the second chamber was the actual steam bath, with a hot and cold shower and a bench of azulejo tiles against the wall, beneath which were hidden the tubes that released the steam. Moving from one vestibule to the next was extraordinary, especially if the steam was already so thick that we couldn’t see each other. Then we would open the door and head into the chamber with the divan, where everything was clear, and behind us, like the filaments of a dream, clouds of steam slipped by and quickly disappeared. Lying there, holding hands, we would listen or try to listen to the barely perceptible sounds of the gym while our bodies cooled. Practically freezing, submerged in silence, we would finally hear the purr welling up through the floor and the walls, the catlike whir of hot pipes and boilers that stoked the business from some secret place in the building.

I’m glad The New Yorker made this story un-paywalled.

Tessa Hadley’s Short Story “Experience”

Tessa Hadley’s short story “Experience” is my fiction read of the week. It’s about a twenty-eight year old narrator, Laura, who moves into her “friend of a friend” Hana’s house while Hana moves away for a while. Rummaging through the attic one day, Laura discovers Hana’s diary. One day, Hana’s former lover, Julian, pays a visit and things escalate (but not in the way I expected):

I’d never have picked Julian out as a sensuous type if I hadn’t read Hana’s diary; he seemed too busy and prosaic, without the abstracted dreamy edges I’d always imagined in people who gave themselves over to their erotic lives. And yet, because of the secret things I knew about him, I was fixated on him the whole time I watched him cook, and then afterward, while we sat opposite each other eating at the little table he pulled up to my armchair. I told myself that, if he left without anything happening, then I had lost my chance and I would die. I wasn’t melting or longing for him to touch me or anything like that; the desire wasn’t in my body but wedged in my mind, persistent and burrowing. I didn’t even like Julian much. But liking people and even loving them seemed to me now like ways of keeping yourself safe, and I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to cross the threshold and be initiated into real life. My innocence was a sign of something maimed or unfinished in me.

The ending is a bit anti-climactic, which is something I’ve come to expect from a lot of these fictional stories in The New Yorker.