Resisting Rhapsody: The Year of Alice Munro

She has an undeniable body of work, first-name-only recognition status, and now a Nobel Prize. Why is it so hard to love or hate Alice Munro’s writing in intellectual terms rather than personal ones?

Michelle Dean is a journalist and critic who lives in New York. Her writing has appeared online...

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1. Yesterday Alice Munro’s daughter, Jenny, accepted the Nobel Prize for her in Stockholm. There was no grand lecture, all pomp and ceremony happened without the recipient herself in attendance. And that fits, somehow. It seems like the way this would all have unfolded if someone had scripted it.

(Perhaps that person would have been Munro. “Outside of my own town—this far outside it, at least—all the bright and famous people in the world seemed to be floating around free, ready to turn up anywhere,” she wrote in a story, once.)

The way she didn’t pick up the phone when the Nobel committee called, for example. It was a small thing, I know, an accident really; from what I can gather, she was just out in Vancouver visiting her daughter. And it’s not like one can plan for the eventuality that some Swedish person will call with this sort of news. But there is also the inescapable reality that someone else would have planned for it. I have an image of certain writers not so much waiting by the phone as alert, even in slumber, to the possibility that it might up and ring. Not even “certain” writers, come to think of it: most of them.

Instead, life imitated Munro’s art. Here she is, the one everyone calls “our Chekhov,” the one pretty much everyone agrees is the big enchilada of short story-writing in the world today. And she seems barely to know it. The humbleness, the almost paradoxically ostentatious humbleness of it, is key to understanding just what is great and monumental about Munro’s work. And what makes it so bedevilingly difficult to describe to someone else, because loving Munro’s work has the quality of a personal feeling rather than an intellectual one.

You can tell that from the vague ways she’s praised, all these writers who were quoted in the press as saying things like—this is Emma Donoghue—“She’s become a one-word celebrity. When people say ‘Alice,’ you know that we mean Alice Munro, and that rarely happens to writers.” That’s the kind of thing you say when a reporter catches you off-guard on the phone, I know, and not your considered intellectual argument. But it becomes a kind of backhanded insult, this effusive, personal praise. For another writer it would be like blood in the water. In Munro’s case, because most people know in a deep way that she is good at what she does, instead it turns into a sort of bovine tautology. Munro is excellent because she is excellent. People don’t push and pull at that story—they don’t, in other words, do with it what Munro might.

2. Actually, earlier this summer, one gunman did appear on the grassy knoll: Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books, took on Munro’s oeuvre and tried to articulate the opposite position. His essay, which begat innumerable instantly forgettable op-eds, was weak, though—a monument to the kind of criticism that believes personal taste can and should entirely substitute for real analysis. In fact, he believes the same of us: Lorentzen contends that Munro’s celebrants are “instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings.” But the piece is silent on the question of why any of the virtues he mentions should be discarded. Instead, we are offered observations that Munro’s stories make him terribly depressed, that they merely make him “attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby,” employ “perfectly polished” prose that isn’t “interesting,” and don’t sufficiently acknowledge postmodernism.

These vague adjectives take us to a depressingly glib place for discussing literature. Press down on any of them and you don’t get past someone’s subjective feelings, which aren’t subject to actual dispute. I’m not doubting that Lorentzen is offering his sincere opinion, of course, but he can’t really be saying that he believes that good books ignore the shabby and the grubby in life, or have shaggy if “interesting” prose, or must contain some rote references to Pynchon or something. These are the kinds of arguments one might have as an undergraduate literature student, or in a pub, but they don’t have much value anywhere else. It might be fun to pass an evening with them—I like arguing about culture as much as the next person, it’s the whole reason I have this job—but as a basis for a whole literature? They’re all empty calories.

It struck me as particularly ironic, also, to see postmodernism deployed in service of such a fixed formula on how to write a good story. If the postmodernists show us anything, it’s really that all formulae are ruses, have hidden agendas and priorities, don’t on their own make anything “good.” All those disruptors of literary convention did it not just to bedevil readers but because they wanted to make the point that no orthodoxy is without weak spots. But at some point, some people who really loved David Foster Wallace or Don DeLillo or Pynchon or any of those guys (and do they notice these are all guys, I sometimes wonder) thought their love was sufficient proof that these guys knew the One True Way to write. Which is a shame—not just because it is a misinterpretation, but because it is wrong, just plain wrong.

3. I don’t know if Alice Munro knows the One True Way to write, either. I rather think what recommends her is that she usually makes no such claims. She writes what she writes, and that’s that; we have no long critical essays citing Robbe-Grillet and Foucault or, hell, even just Henry James kicking around from her. She is telling a story. She is doing the work. That’s it, that’s all.

But if we are to be somewhat—and here I realize I’m being sly—well, post-modern about it, there is another agenda to be excavated behind the simple surface. People always highlight what a “small” landscape Munro’s stories inhabit, for example. (Usually these people don’t realize how far Huron County is from Kingston, but sure.) But Munro has openly resisted the suggestion that her geographical confines are the only relevant limits:

When I write about something happening in this setting, I don’t think that I’m choosing to be confined. Quite the opposite. I don’t think I’m writing just about this life. I hope to be writing about and through it.

Munro’s only appealing, there, to a thing we all believe about stories, which is that they have the power to transcend their circumstances—that the circumstances, so to speak, are not the only things that give a story (or a person) value. So many of her protagonists, frustrated by their small traps, would be relieved to know this. Of course you can get too sentimental about that—people often do, talking of Munro, waxing rhapsodic about how she writes about unimportant people, as though anyone seems “unimportant” to oneself in the ultimate calculus.

This is why Munro typically resists the rhapsodic, I think, has boiled down her sentences over time. She is a natural skeptic. Think of Et, the protagonist of “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” who observes of her sister’s former lover that:

He bent to each woman he talked to—it didn’t matter how fat or scrawny or silly she was—as if there was one thing in her he would like to find. He had a gentle and laughing but ultimately serious, narrowing look (was that the look men finally had when they made love, that Et would never see?) that made him seem to want to be a deep-sea diver diving down, down through all the emptiness and cold and wreckage to discover the one thing he had set his heart on, something small and precious, hard to locate, as a ruby maybe on the ocean floor.

Of course Et is skeptical that rubies are always actually there to be found. But she understands that the “fat or scrawny or silly” still need to believe there is something to be found in them to keep going. That’s why they feed off the looks men like this give them. Yet I do not think either that the observation is made with enough superiority for Et to deem these other women “shabby” or “grubby.” What was that look the men finally had, she asks—like she too wants to see it.

In fact, I often think Munro exists in a much stronger place of existential doubt than she’s generally given credit for, isn’t sentimental in the way other people are. She does not accept all the stories people tell themselves, though nor does she quite condemn them. She is, for example, a skeptic about the healing powers of parental love, which is about the closest you can come to unalloyed heresy these days, I think. This she believes even in the face of, well, cancer. Think of the character in “The Moons of Jupiter” who, taking her potentially sick child home on the bus, remarks to herself:

I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive. It could be done so discreetly that the object of such care would not suspect, any more than she would suspect the sentence of death itself.

Try to stick that on an advertisement for a children’s hospital and you see it: blasphemy. No one wants to think that parents might think of self-protection, of personal survival, in such times. That is not what is prescribed.

And yet there is a kind of love in the parceling out of love, doing it “so discreetly that the object of such care would not suspect.” Things aren’t what people suspect.

In fact, in few Munro stories is the narrative frame itself without suspicion. This has been especially true in her later collections, in the quasi-fictional stories of Dear Life, for example, where the narrator is never sure if what she’s remembering is true or not. But it came up earlier, as early as “The Ottawa Valley,” a story about the protagonist’s journey with her mother to her childhood home. Throughout the story the mother is herself slightly out of frame, eclipsed by her sister. And at the very last second the narrator breaks the fourth wall. “If I had been making a proper story out of this,” she says, she would end it a certain way. And then the real admission pours forth:

The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did. She is heavy as always, she weighs everything down, and yet she is indistinct, her edges melt and flow.

Anyone who has ever tried to write so much as a letter will recognize this. The instability of people, the insubstantiality of describing them, the idea that not all of this writing work is actually good or noble or anything at all. In other words: Alice Munro is, by just her third book, already ahead of the postmodernists on the futility of the conventions of storytelling, the “skill” of it being ultimately a frustrating thing:

Which means she has stuck to me as close as ever and refused to fall away, and I could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same.

But Alice Munro did go on and on. And, perhaps maddeningly to her, though she’s the only one who could tell us: that is why Munro deserved that Nobel.

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