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.

On Details, Imagination, and Living

A wonderful post on details and imagination from James:

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

This is an interesting point, and I think it comes about for two reasons: 1) fiction is more readily available to us today, now than anyone in our real lives 2) it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to become invested in someone on a proactive basis, and so we choose to go with the easier world of fiction:

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.


(hat tip: Cheri Lucas)

This Is Your Brain on Fiction

What do you say to someone who prefers to read nonfiction over fiction? Easy. Read more fiction. According to several studies, when you read fiction full of detailed descriptions, clever metaphors, and complex characters, your brain is stimulated in novel ways:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Indeed, individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This relationship exists even after the researchers account for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels (which is debatable in its own right).

So: read more fiction.


Source: New York Times 

Roberto Bolaño’s Labyrinth


Take a look at the photo above. It’s a real photograph, but in a story published in The New Yorker last month, Roberto Bolaño creates a (fictional) story for each of the individuals seen in the photo. He goes in depth hypothesizing on how the characters are named, how they are dressed, why they are or aren’t looking at the camera, what’s going on in the background, and ultimately into behavior of the characters. The title of the story is “Labyrinth,” and it is fascinating:

The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer. Who are the most warmly dressed? J.-J. Goux, Sollers, and Marc Devade, without question: they’re wearing jackets over their turtleneck sweaters, and thick jackets, too, from the look of them, especially J.-J.’s and Devade’s. Kristeva is a case apart: her turtleneck sweater is light, more elegant than practical, and she’s not wearing anything over it. Then we have Guyotat. He might be as warmly dressed as the four I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t seem to be, but he’s the only one wearing three layers: the black leather jacket, the shirt, and the striped T-shirt. You could imagine him wearing those clothes even if the photo had been taken in summer. It’s quite possible. All we can say for sure is that Guyotat is dressed as if he were on his way somewhere else. As for Carla Devade, she’s in between. Her blouse, whose collar is showing over the top of her sweater, looks soft and warm; the sweater itself is casual, but of good quality, neither very heavy nor very light. Finally, we have Jacques Henric and Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Henric is clearly not a man who feels the cold, although his Canadian lumberjack’s shirt looks warm enough. And the least warmly dressed of all is Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Under her light, knitted V-neck sweater there are only her breasts, cupped by a black or white bra.

All of them, more or less warmly dressed, captured by the camera at that moment in 1977 or thereabouts, are friends, and some of them are lovers, too. For a start, Sollers and Kristeva, obviously, and the two Devades, Marc and Carla. Those, we might say, are the stable couples. And yet there are certain features of the photo (something about the arrangement of the objects, the petrified, musical rhododendron, two of its leaves invading the space of the ficus like clouds within a cloud, the grass growing in the planter, which looks more like fire than grass, the everlasting leaning whimsically to the left, the glasses in the center of the table, well away from the edges, except for Kristeva’s, as if the other members of the group were worried they might fall) that suggest a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women.

If you’re a fan of fiction, don’t miss it.

Stephen King on Successful Novels

Stephen King was blown away by The Lord of the Flies when he first read it as a child. In this interview in The Telegraph, he goes on to explain how he found the novel and why it appeals to him. But the biggest takeaway are his thoughts on what makes a successful novel (emphasis mine):

To me, Lord of the Flies has always represented what novels are for; what makes them indispensable. Should we expect to be entertained when we read a story? Of course. An act of the imagination that doesn’t entertain is a poor act indeed. But there should be more. A successful novel should erase the boundary line between writer and reader, so they can unite. When that happens, the novel becomes a part of life – the main course, not the dessert. A successful novel should interrupt the reader’s life, make him or her miss appointments, skip meals, forget to walk the dog. In the best novels, the writer’s imagination becomes the reader’s reality. It glows, incandescent and furious. I’ve been espousing these ideas for most of my life as a writer, and not without being criticised for them. If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination, the most potent of these criticisms go, then analysis is swept away and discussion of the book becomes irrelevant.

This is why I read fiction.

Hat tip: @matthiasrascher

On Reading Fiction

All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does.

I just finished reading Kevin Hartnett’s essay “When I’m in the Mood for Fiction,” and it has definitely got me thinking (the quote above is from that essay). Are there times or circumstances when I prefer to read fiction over non-fiction? In general, I read both fiction and non-fiction, and my response to the question would be something mundane: after I read a few non-fiction books in a row, I want to experience something more imaginative. But that almost seems like a cop-out, and I don’t really have a good answer. Hartnett’s essay hits the nail on the head:

The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction.  At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by.  What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.

This thinking does seem contradictory, but I think it makes sense. When you’re on a roll or on an emotional high, you want to keep it going. Fiction provides this outlet, or in this case, extends it. When you’ve been reading news or get sucked into politics, perhaps it’s more difficult to get “into” fiction. Then again, the critic in me knows there are others who will chime in as follows: after a long day of reading the boring on the Internet (see Hartnett’s quote at the top which began this post), the first thing you may want to do is unwind with fiction. Interesting how I turned that around, right?

I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer for me, but I do agree with this point:

At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone.

I should mention that at the moment I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is what the Washington Post Book World cited as Japan stuffed “into a single fictional edifice.” Which begs this extracurricular question: are there degrees to fiction? Can something be more fictional than something else?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to close with this (I say it because it’s true for me): non-fiction stirs the mind, but fiction—well, it stirs the soul.


Questions for the reader: what do you think of Hartnett’s take on reading fiction? Do you agree with him? When do you prefer reading fiction over non-fiction? Can you even pinpoint your mood or a set of circumstances, or is the answer something vague (like my answer is)?

While the Women Are Sleeping

The best thing I read today was a short story in The New Yorker titled “While the Women Are Sleeping.” The story is by an author I haven’t heard of before: Javier Marías.

The story starts out with more questions than answers…

For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them. I’ll probably never see them again—at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.

It’s kind of an intriguing opening: who is them? What have they become? And summer conversations rarely lead to anywhere?

The story concerns a couple from Madrid vacationing on an island. While there, they observe another couple; the beautiful Inés, described as so:

She was beautiful, indolent, passive, and, by nature, languid. Throughout the three hours a day that we spent at the beach (they stayed longer, perhaps taking their siesta there and, who knows, staying until sunset), she barely moved and was, of course, concerned only with her own beautification

and her older, less attractive male companion named Alberto Viana. What the observing couple find remarkable (and so does the reader, no doubt) is that Alberto constantly, without interruption records Ines on video camera. The video camera has become an extension of him…

The story, admittedly, starts out slowly (I had to step away from reading it in the evening, and came back to it the following day)… But then it picks up and absolutely sucks you in. At least, it did for me. What could be so interesting about a guy videotaping his girlfriend? The answer is explained in the story, which begins with this conversation between the narrator and Alberto:

“I’ve noticed that you’re very keen on video cameras,” I said after that pause, that hesitation.

“Video cameras?” he said, slightly surprised or as if to gain time. “Ah, I see. No, not really, I’m not a collector. It isn’t the camera itself that interests me, although I do use it a lot. It’s my girlfriend, whom you’ve seen, I’m sure. I film only her, nothing else. I don’t experiment with it at all. That’s fairly obvious, I suppose.”

And the conversation picks up from there. What I find fascinating is our abilities to remember things; some go about life, cruising. Others write things down. Others photograph the world around them. This was an intriguing conversation between the narrator and Alberto Viana:

“You don’t have a camera? Don’t you like to be able to remember things?” Viana asked me this with genuine confusion.

“Yes, of course I do, but you can remember things in other ways, don’t you think? Memory is a kind of camera, except that we don’t always remember what we want to remember or forget what we want to forget.”

And still others prefer to record things on video, as Alberto explains to the narrator:

“How can you compare what you can remember with what you can see, with what you can see again, just as it happened? With what you can watch over and over, ad infinitum, and even freeze?

But there is something sinister (though arguably honest) in Alberto’s declaration…

I won’t say much more except that this is an incredible story of obsession, vision (literally and figuratively), memory, human misconceptions, life, and death. Shortly put, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in 2010, so I highly recommend reading it.


A hat tip to @etherielmusings for pointing out this story via Twitter.