Literary Sisters: Alice Munro

This week, Alice Munro announced that, at 81, it’s probably time she retired from writing.  It’s a good opportunity to celebrate the work of this extraordinary and prolific writer, whose work – though focusing on small towns and seemingly small lives – tackles complex and weighty issues.

Alice Munro 1931-

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Biography and background

‘When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,’ Canadian writer Alice Munro once said, ‘In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people’.  This fascination with otherness, difference and social cohesion is one of the main threads of Munro’s work.  Born in Ontario, Canada in 1931, Munro moved to British Columbia after her marriage at the age of 20.  As well as running a bookstore with her husband and raising three children, she began to write – initially for magazines and radio.  Her first collection of stories was published in 1968 and she has, recently, at the age of 81, announced that she plans to retire from writing (which some question will actually happen), with a total of 14 short story collections under her belt.

Why is she important?

Short story writer extraordinaire, Munro has been likened to Chekhov and praised for her accessible, realist style.  Her themes are often those of shame, secrecy and social unease.   An acute observer of life, whose work probes issues like community, relationships and class, Munro provides realistic snapshots of everyday life (especially of women).  A distinctive feature of her writing is her regional emphasis – she sets her stories in her own locale of Ontario – yet her concerns are also universal, demonstrated by her winning a string of international awards.

Munro’s literary accolades are numerous.  In addition to the Canadian Governor-General  awards (1968, 1978, 1986) and two Giller Prizes (1998, 2004), she has been awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2009, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada and the Caribbean) and the O. Henry Award in the US for continuing achievement in short fiction.

You might want to read…

Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)  Munro’s third collection, published in 1978, and the one which is widely held to be the first to be written in her distinctive mode.  A collection of tales held together by a single character, giving multiple perspectives on her life and community.

Open Secrets. (1994)  Charts the economic and social history of the town of Carstairs, while also focusing on the level of the private and individual through the character of Louisa.  Munro’s stories in this collection are open to plural ideological readings, which pose questions about the individual and community; about the role of women and about the notion of identity itself.

Dear Life. (2012)  Munro’s most recent – and possibly her last ever – collection.  In this volume, according to the New Yorker, Munro portrays women who ‘in some way shake off the weight of their upbringing and do something unconventional—and are then, perhaps, punished for it, by men who betray them or abandon them at their most vulnerable.’  

More info


In print

Alice Munro by Ailsa Cox (part of the Writers and their Work series).  An accessible and lucid introduction to Munro’s writing.

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