Alice Munro writes without a trace of didacticism or judgement
A lot has been said about Alice Munro. Her writing: incisive, intuitive and economic. Her voice: ineffably poised — on paper and on camera, on the rare occasions this reclusive writer offers interviewers a piece of her mind. Yet, some have remained skeptical of the richness of possibilities offered by Munro’s narratives, real and fictitious.
Perhaps, in the end, Munro’s stoicism in the face of all these assumptions is her most lasting legacy.
When she first won the Nobel Prize in literature seven years ago, reactions from the literary community were mixed. Many were agape at how Munro, with her outmoded, interior backdrops, conventionally feminine characters and preferred short story format (which is often considered a diminutive of the novel) managed to secure a win from the Swedish Academy.
If Munro was aware of any incoming controversy, she seemed unsurprisingly nonplussed: “Well, I don’t care what they feel as long as they enjoy reading the book,” she said, when asked by the Academy if she feels she had inspired writers — women, particularly — with her win.
Her habit of being coy — showing rather than telling — naturally lent itself to the question of feminism, where Munro remained similarly noncommittal. Her answers on the movement have continued to waver over the years. She remains steadfast, however, to the definition of her writing as a product of intuition — a desire to illustrate her visions of girl and womanhood, rather than expressing a concerted effort to follow political theory.
Maybe what is most feminist and remarkable about Munro, then, is exactly this ability to draw out the hidden agency of characters in circumstances of disadvantage. Marlene Goldman, a literary scholar who has written extensively on Munro, said of the twists and turns in the architecture of her narratives: “Munro’s stories don’t promote the view that we’ll live happily ever after. Instead, they insist that life is full of radical, shocking, sometimes supernatural transformations.”
Munro’s canon is indeed stuffed with transformations. Rather than settling characters in their positions of poverty or pitifulness, Munro renegotiates their power without making that human hunger — a reckless reach for freedom — a revolutionary act. Each human impulse is treated with compassion and empathy, as a simple fact of life.
On the inspiration front, she isn’t doing too badly either, despite previously apparent nonchalance. Sonja Larsen, who won the 2017 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary, said reading Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women in her early twenties was a formative experience for her.
“She had people who were vulnerable and underdogs, but also not without their own power,” Larsen says. “The women were oppressed, but not powerless. That was eye-opening to me.”
The portrayal of human beings as neither victims nor perpetrators is something Munro does masterfully, added Larsen. Munro’s ability to craft prose that is simple but emotionally impactful has remained with her as she progressed in her own career as a writer.
Larsen’s sentiment will resonate with many Munro fans. And to those who continue dismissing Munro’s proficiency, her catalogue of award-winning books persists, as she did, in quiet defiance of all who belittled her ability to make the small meaningful.
Visuals by Laura Douglas.