This week, Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize in literature. This prize is historical and interesting for a few reasons.
Munro is only the 13th woman out of 110 Nobel Prize-winners. That's right - not even 12% of the winners of what is arguably the world's most prestigious literary award are female. This is rather strange, given that approximately 51% of the world's population is female. But then again, one only needs to consider who generally decides what counts as great, important literature in order to understand why so few women tend to get literary awards such as the Nobel. What is needed for this to change?
On the other hand, Munro is the 27th writer in English to receive the Nobel. This means that almost a quarter of the Nobel Prizes in literature have gone to authors working in English. Considering that native English-speakers only make up about 6% of the world's population, this seems like an overrepresentation of authors writing in English. If you add in people who have English as a second language, you still only get to around 12% of the world's population (and sure, you could add in people who speak English as their third or fourth language, too, but how likely is it that they'll be writing fiction or poetry in something that isn't their native or second tongue?).
What is the huge number of English-language authors about? Are we still less open to reading texts from and about other cultures? Do prize-givers think of English-speakers as among the most talented, most creative authors? If so, why?
Thankfully, however, there are many excellent translators around, who can and do make texts written in a variety of languages available in another range of languages, so one would hope that the Nobel committee, and other prize-giving bodies, would not merely be focusing on texts that they can read in the original. This, too, needs to change.
Perhaps what is most important about Munro's prize is the form she works in: the short story. The citation for her award calls Munro a "master of the contemporary short story". Only two other winners have been recognised specifically for their short stories, though of course others wrote short stories, too. Those two were Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse and Gabriel García Márquez.
This means that just 2.7% of the awards have gone to short-story writers, compared to at least 16% to poets (18 citations specifically mentioned poetry) and 11% to dramatists/playwrights (12 citations referred to drama or plays), and of course many awards to novelists.
In the aftermath of the announcement, Munro was quoted as saying, "I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you've played around with until you've got a novel written."
Indeed, perhaps the award will make people consider this form afresh. In countries such as the United States and Canada, short stories are still published in literary magazines and in collections. In places such as the United Kingdom, and indeed many non-English-speaking countries, this is simply not the case.
The short story (and its relatives, the short short, the flash/sudden story, and the prose poem) is neglected and overlooked. Maybe now more people will read Munro's work, and other short stories, and write their own. Perhaps literary magazines and publishers alike will take a chance on the short form. Given how short people's attention spans are today, it seems odd that short stories aren't more popular. The best ones make you think and stay with you, but they don't take hours or even days to get through.
Awards are always interesting for what they honour as much as what they ignore. This year, the Nobel has highlighted an important type of literature (the short story), while also revealing the overrepresentation of English-language writers and the underrepresentation of women.
Prize-giving bodies need to consider their choice of texts and authors even more carefully in the future, to ensure they aren't overlooking works and styles that deserve greater prominence.
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