We need to talk about Alice Munro. Oh, how we need to talk about Alice.
On most subjects, it is difficult for me to pin down my “favorite” thing: meal, drink, movie, color – there are just too many different categories, people. Who could possibly be so decisive? But when it comes to writing, I have no such difficulty. Of the thousand or so different authors I’ve read, for my money, Alice Munro is the best.
Alice is a Canadian who writes fiction, mostly short stories, and she has earned the highest respect of virtually all literary critics and most successful writers. Think of a writer you love (go ahead), and I can almost guarantee that not only are they familiar with Alice, they are at least slightly in awe of her talent. The perennial literary darling Jonathan Franzen calls her “the Great One.” In a 2004 piece in The New York Times (which was ostensibly a review of Alice’s book Runaway, but which was actually a lengthy essay on Alice’s sheer awesomeness), Franzen said this:
“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”
Whenever Alice pens a new short story, it is snapped up by one of the most prestigious publications in the world. Her work is included in nearly every annual “Best of the Year” story collection. In 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize (given for a lifetime body of work), only the third person to have done so.
Yet Alice Munro is not a household name – and to serious readers, this is a serious affront.
Here is how it is between Alice and me: I don’t know how she does it. And I couldn’t care less. (I spent about five minutes, once, trying to figure out her technique, and then I wisely gave up.)
Can I at least describe what Alice does? I can try, but the problem there is, unless you are actually Alice herself, you don’t possess the literary talent to do her work justice. Quoting her directly is a better method of illustrating what she does.
Well, since you asked.
From the 1997 compilation of her best work, Selected Stories:
“The doctor, the heart specialist, said that her heart was a little wonky and her pulse inclined to be jumpy. She thought that made her heart sound like a comedian and her pulse like a puppy on a lead. She had not come fifty-seven miles to be treated with such playfulness but she let it pass, because she was already distracted by something she had been reading in the doctor’s waiting room.”
And from another story:
“Stella wonders where this new voice of Catherine’s comes from, this pert and rather foolish and flirtatious voice. Drink wouldn’t do it. Whatever Catherine has taken has made her sharper, not blunter. Several layers of wispy apology, tentative flattery, fearfulness, or hopefulness have simply blown away in this brisk chemical breeze.”
And here is the final paragraph of one of my favorite stories, “Material”:
“Gabriel came into the kitchen before he went to bed, and saw me sitting with a pile of test papers and my marking pencils. He might have meant to talk to me, to ask me to have coffee, or a drink, with him, but he respected my unhappiness as he always does; he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with these test papers; he left me alone to get over it.”
It is often noted that Alice’s short stories contain more depth than most full-length novels. Not only does she waste no paragraphs or sentences, she seems to waste no words. But her prose is not terse, like Hemingway’s; it is rich and full, it breathes and floats and is full of warmth.
It’s also as sharp as a dagger.
There are no zombies in Alice’s work, no explosions or natural disasters, no fantastic plots, very few murders. This is not how she keeps a reader turning the pages. Alice generally writes about simple people: housewives and grandparents and bewildered young women and children, in the most normal of settings: in cars, on farms, in retirement homes or back porches or shabby living rooms – but in the middle of this perfect ordinariness, she (as one reviewer put it) “flays” her characters, exposes their inner lives in ways that are shocking in the sense of recognition they stir in the reader.
Even if you have never been in these situations yourself, you think, “Yes! Yes. That is exactly how it is.” Even if you have never met anyone like these characters, you believe that Alice has pegged them perfectly.
Within a sentence or two, Alice gives you exactly enough information to completely understand how each character operates and what motivates them. This is in no way an easy skill. There are very few novelists who can do this, and none do it as well as Alice Munro.
Virtually all of her stories are sprinkled with the kind of sentences that most talented writers are happy to craft a few times in their entire careers. Like:
“Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.”
Or when a character narrates this:
“This was the first time I understood how God could become a real opponent, not just some kind of nuisance or large decoration.”
Who the freak writes like this?!
The author Pat Conroy, in explaining his love of reading (and great writing), says this:
“I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor.”
Which nicely illustrates the difference between mediocre writers – or even good writers – and great ones. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between “literature” and every other kind of fiction, I believe that would be it. Average writers may have the ability to capture me with a story, but they do not write stunning sentences that put me on the metaphorical floor with their beauty.
Alice Munro does this, to a greater degree than any other writer I’ve read. In fact, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island, and could only have one work of fiction with me, I’d choose her Selected Stories.
Yeah, she’s that good.
Look, Alice doesn’t have to be your favorite writer. You don’t have to love her work as much as I do. Her stories don’t have to be your “cup of tea.”
But, my dear fellow writers: if, while reading Alice’s best work (and Selected Stories or Runaway are excellent places to start – or shoot, check out her story “Dimension,” here), you do not at least recognize the level of skill she possesses, if you do not see the genius of what she’s doing – well then, in my opinion, you have some more work to do.
Have you experienced the writings of Alice The Great? And which authors put you “on the floor” with their writing?