One of the most problematic aspects of modern literary culture is the popular mentality that innovation has to be tied to maximalism. Take, for example, the widespread bafflement that accompanied the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Alice Munro. To date, Munro has only published short stories, and her fiction – at first glance – is written in a minimalist vein, detailing regular people dealing with everyday situations within realistic environments. The general consensus in many circles being that Munro is a fine craftsman, but a fairly conservative one – certainly not progressive enough to warrant winning the biggest prize in fiction.
This reaction was misguided and tied to the misconception that in order for fiction to be groundbreaking it needs to be characterised by excess: more characters, more tones, more genres, more references, more punctuation, more narrative gamesmanship, more vernaculars.
Munro’s unique brand of minimalism is itself radical; she distils plots of extreme breadth and resonance to the bare essentials with striking precision. Her stories are based almost entirely on suggestion, typically dancing on the sidelines of huge events while only making the slightest allusions to them, and constructing incredibly intricate characterisations out of seemingly tossed-off gestures and asides.
Her rhythms are low-key yet fluid and organic, sliding from detail to detail in such a way as to build narrative so gradually it’s hard to register until the story’s over, and even in retrospect it’s tough to pinpoint the exact mechanisms that created the effect. Munro’s work appears effortless yet in reality is full of literary wonder.