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.