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Long haul for the short story as Alice Munro wins Nobel accolade

' The evils that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil ... around a dining table.'

The first story in Alice Munro's 2009 collection Too Much Happiness opens with a woman catching three buses to visit her husband in "the facility". He is in prison, it emerges, for murdering their three children after she spent a night with neighbours to escape his abuse.

"You brought it all on yourself," he tells her when she finds the bodies. And then comes more - more tragedy, more skin-prickling revelation and psychological insight.

There is always more in a story by the 82-year-old author, hailed as a "master of the contemporary short story" by the judges who awarded her the Nobel prize in literature.

The first Canadian winner, Munro has published nothing but short stories - many of them quite long - in a 50-year career and is admired for the Chekhovian depth and subtlety of her fiction in its most concentrated form.

Writers and publishers of short stories across the English-speaking world - and further - will rejoice in the recognition for what is often dismissed as a lesser relation to the novel, practice for "real" writing.

As well as being deserved, her success is perfectly timed for several reasons. In a year when the spotlight has been on the relative lack of attention in the media to female writers, Munro is only the 13th woman to win the prize in 112 years.

With booksellers enduring a downturn, Munro's refined but accessible writing will walk out of shops, unlike the work of more political or obscure recent laureates such as the Chinese writer Mo Yan and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. Though less innovative in her writing than Japan's Haruki Murakami, who was widely considered the front-runner for the prize, she is equally respected and influential.

Munro, who lives a quiet and modest life, said after the death of her second husband this year that she was "content" with her achievement and no longer had the energy to write. Whether she is inspired or further deterred by the glare of the Nobel, it is fitting to honour a writer's life as complete as hers.

Munro grew up in rural Ontario with narrow horizons, married at 20 and had the first of her three daughters at 21, soon after she and her husband moved west to Victoria, British Columbia, where they started the landmark Munro's Books.

But she had written since childhood and continued with determination between children, housework and working in the bookshop. Perhaps the short form suited her snatches of time. Even when she attempted a novel it fragmented into the mostly long short stories that became her signature.

Sydney author and critic Sara Dowse, who has lived in Canada, says, "The interesting thing about Munro apart from her subject matter - which is largely about women in rural Canada and their struggle - is the form she uses. I just wish there were outlets for Australian writers to write long stories. That's where she shone. The kind of stories she writes are extended enough to allow tremendous depth as well as breadth and surprise."

Munro's first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, won the Governor-General's Award for fiction in 1968 - the Miles Franklin equivalent - and she attracted acclaim for all 14 collections up to her most recent, Dear Life, in 2012 when she also won the International Booker Prize.

Her second collection, Lives of Girls and Women, was published in 1971 when feminism was flowering - as Dowse says, "at just the right moment when we were becoming attentive to the writing women did and the neglect it received.

"If she had been writing in a different time and place she might not have had the same impact. But she stuck to her guns, she stayed with what she knew she could write well and develop to become a mature writer."

After her marriage ended in 1972, Munro moved back to Ontario, remarried and continued to set most of her stories in the small-town and rural environs of Huron County, which she says caused her the "level of irritation" she needed for writing.

Dowse knew Munro's ex-husband and recalls a story Munro had written, "set in Vancouver when she was living over there and married and hating it. It was a time of stultifying conformity in BC. A lot of her stories were about escape and this one was called Cortes, after a bohemian island that never appears in the story but represented all the things she was denied."

Munro is a great example of the writer who illuminates grand, universal themes by writing about the seemingly small and particular. Her characters - often marginalised women trapped by circumstances - could be from small-town anywhere.

She sometimes drew on her mother's life and though much of her work has a contemporary setting some reaches into the past. Perhaps the Nobel judges enjoyed the title story from Too Much Happiness, which follows a 19th-century Russian mathematical genius who ends up in Sweden as a professor at the only university that will hire a woman for the job.

"There are no such things as big and little subjects," Munro has said. "The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other."

Dowse puts Munro "on a par if not higher than" Canada's other celebrated female writer, Margaret Atwood. Canada honours its writers more than Australia does; the death of author Carol Shields 10 years ago was front-page news.

Now Canada has matched Australia's one Nobel win by Patrick White, in 1973, we might feel more urgently due for another. But this year poet Les Murray - long considered our best contender - was given long odds of 50-1 by the bookies, along with Bob Dylan. As we take to the beach for a long, hot summer, our next Nobel may be a distant mirage.

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