Canadian writer Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, cementing her reputation as one of world's greatest tellers of short stories and focusing attention on a literary form that has fallen out of popularity with some readers.
The Swedish Academy said it picked the 82-year-old author—known for her easy-to-read writing style charting the struggles and moral conflicts of everyday characters in rural Ontario—because she is the "master of the contemporary short story."
Ms. Munro is "a fantastic portrayer of human beings," the Academy's permanent secretary, Peter Englund, said in an interview broadcast on the official Nobel Prize website.
Ms. Munro's short stories are mainly set in the southwestern Ontario region of Canada where she grew up and often document the growing pains and dilemmas of young women in restrictive rural environments and their relationships with men.
While her stories often detail a seemingly polite and respectable Canada, the writer has built her reputation on her descriptions of human despair, exploitation and alienation, often focusing on betrayals between men and women.
"The wallowing in the seamier and meaner and more vengeful undersides of human nature, the telling of erotic secrets, the nostalgia for vanished miseries, and rejoicing in the fullness and variety of life, stirred all together," fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote in the introduction to a collection of Ms. Munro's stories.
In a statement through her publisher, Ms. Munro said, "I am amazed, and very grateful." The often publicity-shy writer told Canadian Broadcast Corp. that her daughter woke her up in the middle of the night in British Columbia to give her the news.
"She is one of the greatest short-story writers alive," said Michael Dirda, an American who won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism. In a statement delivered through his publisher, U.S. author Jonathan Franzen called Ms. Munro the best living North American writer and said that, after more than a century, "we finally have a Nobel for a pure short-story writer."
Short stories have lost much of their audience following the gradual decline of many popular magazines that once carried them. Ms. Munro said she hoped the award would help give the short story more recognition.
"It is often brushed off as something that people do before their first novel," she said in an interview broadcast on the Nobel Prize website.
Often commended for her precise language, Ms. Munro never strayed from short stories, even as she has talked in interviews of a desire to write a novel. "Between every book I think, 'Well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff,' " she told the Guardian newspaper in 2003.
Some recent Nobel literature awards appeared to have taken into account political considerations, but the choice of Ms. Munro appeared to be made on a purely literary basis, critic Sven Birkerts suggested. "We didn't have to make the side calculations as to the politics," he noted.
Born in Ontario in 1931 to a farming family of Scottish extraction, Ms. Munro started writing in her teens and has said in interviews that doing that was the only career she really ever wanted. Her first collection, "Dance of the Happy Shades," came out in 1968.
Mr. Dirda noted that Ms. Munro isn't a "flashy" stylist. Rather, he said, the author's strength has been her quiet depictions of human life, of people in crisis.
One of her most famous stories, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," deals with memory loss and the love and betrayals of an elderly couple. It was turned into the 2006 film "Away From Her."
Other stories have charted the early pioneers into Canada's then-lightly trodden hinterlands, sometimes revolving around acts of violence. In a rare excursion outside Canada, the "Albanian Virgin," Ms. Munro weaves a character's reflections on her failed marriage and new start with the tale of a Canadian woman's kidnapping in 1920s Albania.
Having written more than a dozen collections of short stories, Ms. Munro has said in recent interviews with several newspapers that she was considering retiring.
On Thursday, she seemed undecided. She told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. she would stick with that decision but later said in her interview with the Swedish Academy that the award might change her mind.
Ms. Munro, who has said the older she gets the more she likes happy endings for stories, said the award had made her think of her father and "how happy he would have been" and her husband, who died several months ago.
The writer had already won top literary prizes—including the Man Booker International Prize—and had long been seen as a contender for the Nobel Prize.
In her statement, Ms. Munro said she hoped the award also would bring more attention to Canadian writing. In recent decades, the country has been the base of a number of internationally known authors, including Ms. Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.
But she becomes the first writer who has spent her life and career in Canada to win the prize. Saul Bellow, the 1976 prize winner, lived in Quebec until he was nearly 10 but typically is described as an American writer.
The win caused headlines and celebration in Canada, which often sees itself as punching below its weight in global attention. Prime Minister Stephen Harper relayed his congratulations on "behalf of all Canadians" on the messaging service Twitter.
The last American winner was Toni Morrison, who was awarded the prize in 1993.
Ms. Munro is only the 13th woman to win the prize since its inception more than a hundred years ago.
Ms. Munro's books are published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House that is majority- owned by Bertelsmann SE & Co. Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, said Thursday that the publishing house "will be going back to press on all of her works."
Winning can translate into an immediate increase in sales. Arcade Publishing, an imprint of New York-based Skyhorse Publishing, had five works written by Chinese author Mo Yan available in print and digital formats when he won the prize in 2012.
Over the next 12 months, those five titles sold more than 100,000 physical and digital copies in North America, a Skyhorse spokesman said. By comparison, the five titles together sold fewer than 10,000 copies in the prior year in all formats.
At a small Indigo Books outlet in Toronto early Thursday, shoppers were already looking for copies of Ms. Munro's work, said Renato Conti, the store supervisor on duty.
"One of them stormed out because we didn't have a display up for her yet," Mr. Conti said. "I'm sure the head office is racing to get stuff out to stores as soon as possible."