Hilarious and True: Alice Munro

Before you ever read an Alice Munro story, you’ll hear of her reputation as a so-called Anton Chekhov.

While reading an Alice Munro story, it doesn’t matter which for most of them are all essentially the same in mood and style, depending on who you are you’ll either say that it was a great story just like how you were told or you’ll be disappointed that Munro was all hype.

After reading an Alice Munro story, you’ll probably realize:

  • that as a writer you can learn nothing about writing from her,
  • that as a businessperson, guilt-tripping publications to print your work is quite effective, and
  • that 60-years of meek positive reviews, most of them written out of guilt or half-heartedness or “just to be nice” in the face of the literary establishment, can create a legend.

And, despite reading an Alice Munro story, and owning some of her used short story collections, I fell into the latter camp of Munro readers, especially since I had study Chekhov years before in college. The first time I read Chekhov—and aloud in a college class, he moved me like very few writers. After reading Munro, and the misery of her bland WASP characters that I never connected with, I just laughed at the idea that she was “Canada’s best.” Mordecai Richler wrote better short stories than Munro, but why wasn’t he so richly lauded?

Also, where the people of colour in her stories?

After reading an Alice Munro story, and perhaps talking about it in a class or a book club, you’ll probably feel like you’re all alone in the world, surrounded by very defensive people who will violently defend the wonders of Alice Munro, as if she were their cancer-stricken child. I’ve never tried it, though I can imagine it, but I will say now that you’re not alone.

If you’ve read Alice Munro and you didn’t buy into the hype, don’t feel bad, but revel in your well-earned skepticism.

And if you don’t believe me, read Christian Lorentzen’s courageous, honest, and hilarious slam against Alice Munro, from the London Review of Books.

There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental. She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people – ‘people people people’, as Jonathan Franzen puts it. [Christian Lorentzen, 2012]