In its award citation, the Swedish Academy described the 82-year-old Ms Munro as the “master of the contemporary short story”.
Ms Munro, the author of 14 short story collections that have earned her comparisons with Chekhov, is only the 13th woman to take the prize and the fourth this century. She is the first Canadian-based author to win the prize.
“I am amazed and very grateful,” Ms Munro said in a statement. “I am particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”
Ms Munro is a less controversial choice than the 2012 winner, the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, who was criticised in the west for toeing the Communist party line and failing to speak up for dissident writers jailed by the regime.
By contrast, this year’s decision has been greeted with approval across the literary world. Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, said it was exciting to see a woman win and described Ms Munro as an “exquisite stylist” whose work exhibits “the kind intelligence that makes me feel like I’ve been exalted”.
Ms Churchwell also welcomed the choice of a writer who has focused almost exclusively on short fiction, arguing that it was an overdue recognition of a historically undervalued form.
“There isn’t a quota,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, emphasising that there were no broader considerations and that the Swedish Academy choice was made purely on the basis of Ms Munro’s talent. “She can do more in 20-30 pages than the average writer can do in 200,” he said. “Everything is exactly where it should be.”
The choice of a North American writer with a significant profile was welcomed in the British book trade. “From the industry’s perspective it’s good to have such a recognisable name and useful that she’s backed by one of the big publishers,” said Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller. “The Nobel has never been a huge generator of sales, but will give Random House the chance to push her backlist and hopefully find a new audience for her.”
Ms Munro was born on July 10 1931 in the small town of Wingham, Ontario, the daughter of a farmer and a schoolteacher. She studied journalism at the University of Western Ontario, leaving before graduation for lack of funds and moving to Vancouver with her first husband, James Munro. Later they would set up a bookshop in nearby Victoria, where Ms Munro pursued her long-held ambition to become a writer while raising three daughters.
Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. She would take Canada’s top literary prize on two further occasions, for Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) and The Progress of Love (1986). In 2009, when she was awarded the Man International Booker Prize for her complete body of work, one of the judges described her fiction as “practically perfect”.
Having undergone heart surgery and received treatment for cancer in recent years, Ms Munro announced that she was retiring from writing in June. Her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, died in April.
Ms Munro is the 110th winner of the SKr8m ($1.2m) Nobel Prize in Literature, which was created in the will of the scientist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. She will be presented with the prize in Stockholm on December 10.