On Thursday afternoon, I sat on the Toronto-to-Ottawa train, staring out at brick farmhouses and crumbling barns, and the fiery scarlet, sour yellow and burnt orange leaves of an Ontario fall.
Earlier in the day, when I had heard that Alice Munro – our Alice Munro – had won the Nobel Prize for literature, I let out a whoop of joy.
Now, out of the train window, I contemplated a landscape that mirrored the classic backcloth of Munro stories that had captured my imagination long before I arrived in Canada from London in 1979.
Those rural and small-town settings made her fiction a stark contrast to the middle-class, urban novels by British writers I then favoured – Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, Malcolm Bradbury, Doris Lessing.
Back then, I had no idea what a dried cornstalk looked like, or how a turkey factory smelled. I didn't know a sumac from a squash.
However, each time I opened one of the early Munro collections (Lives of Girls and Women, Who Do You Think You Are?), her world enveloped me. Within five paragraphs, she could draw me into this unfamiliar landscape and make me care about quiet betrayals, suppressed passion, brave gestures of dignity. You didn't have to be Canadian to appreciate the emotional sophistication and stiletto insights rippling through her taut prose, or the extraordinary complexity of stories that swoop backward and forward in time.
And I also recalled my stint as a Giller judge in 2004, alongside Alistair MacLeod and M.G. Vassanji.
The Giller is a lot of work. All that summer and fall, the boxloads kept coming: more than a hundred books by writers of all ages, from all over the country. What a relief when a box disgorged a few clunkers that I could discard after 50 pages! Oh those boxes … wherever I went, a box sat on the back seat of my car, clamouring for attention.
Literary jury service is intellectual arm-wrestling. You not only focus on your favourite's strengths: You also parse possible flaws in the other contenders. There were lengthy person-to-person meetings among the judges. There were phone conferences. There was mutual respect between the three of us, with tolerance for each other's idiosyncrasies (MacLeod's slow deliberations; Vassanji's silences; my rushes to judgment.)
But there was also an elephant in the room. Munro's Runaway was submitted for the Giller that year. The cacophony of dramas in other books (storm-chasers, tempestuous artists, boisterous renaissance pageants) could not drown out the quiet epiphanies of her stories or the biting precision of her prose. It was hard enough for the three of us to wrestle our way to a short list (there was no long list in those days.) Faced with too many good books, we failed to narrow it down to five – we forced Jack Rabinovitch, the Giller's generous founder, to allow us six. (Since each shortlisted author received $2,500 in those days, it cost him. He has since ruled that only five books can be shortlisted.)
My memories of Giller morning are particularly vivid. The final jury get-together begins after breakfast, although the jurors don't reveal their joint decision until later, during the evening's glittering gala. As a writer of creative non-fiction, I had already learned so much in discussions with these two extraordinary craftsmen.
But we had a difficult time that morning, because the focus of the discussion, as I recall, quickly became not who should win but why Alice Munro should not. Should she win it a second time? Was she too old-guard? Should we be looking for edgy new talent – a newcomer who would get more benefit from the bump in sales? How did short stories stack up against novels? Was her landscape too rural, too old-fashioned for the 21st century?
The only criterion for Giller judges is to choose "the best" book of the year – and once the clunkers are eliminated, that involves subjective judgment. In 2004, two of the judges were men; two were immigrants; none of us had grown up on the Munro landscape. But in the end, Runaway was the gold standard. The other shortlisted books were terrific, but if we didn't give it to Alice, it would imply that Runaway was not the best of the six. And that morning, we decided she was. Her deceptively simple prose asked far larger questions, and explored more uncomfortable dilemmas, than most authors could ever encompass.
Other jurors might take different approaches. Some want to draw attention to a novel that explores a taboo issue, or highlight an author with a different type of sensibility, or choose a book that challenges readers with its experimental style. It is extremely hard to assess what is "the best" – but for the three of us, Runaway was it. The members of this year's Nobel committee faced the same questions, in a much larger field, and came to the same conclusion.
Charlotte Gray is the author of nine bestselling works of history and biography. Her latest book is The Massey Murder. Gold Diggers, published in 2010, is currently in production as a U.S Discovery Channel miniseries.