10 June 2013

Defending Alice Munro

I was pleased to read Kyle Minor's response to Christian Lorentzen's London Review of Books hatchet job on Alice Munro, not because I think Munro is above criticism, but because Lorentzen's attempt at a take-down was pretty shallow. I read Lorentzen's piece and was merely moved to get snarky on Twitter, but Minor really digs into Lorentzen's claims.

Much as I am in awe of Munro's best stories, I am also extremely wary of any discourse that builds up around a writer to make them seem impervious to criticism. This is perhaps Lorentzen's best claim — that Munro has been too much worshipped and too little evaluated. It does our understanding of her achievement no service to surround every sentence she writes with awe. Habitual praise is meaningless.

The critical writing about Munro that I most appreciate is the type that really digs into what she's doing and its effects. I found Lorentzen's approach annoying not because he doesn't like Munro's work, but because his dislike prohibits him from understanding the subtleties and complexities of the texts, making his writing a narrow expression of personal taste and ultimately a demonstration of his own obtuseness. Everybody has writers whose work they don't "get" — writers who, for whatever reason of tone or style or topic, we bounce off of. Such writers are the hardest for any critic to write about in a constructive or insightful way, because our response is too individual, too blinding. Lorentzen's expression of distaste for the stories of Alice Munro is perfect evidence of this: the review says little of use about Munro and instead paints a (rather unappealing) portrait of Lorentzen as a reader.

Really, the fact that Lorentzen read ten of Munro's collections in a row should immediately disqualify him from rational conversation about her work, because while it might be an interesting exercise to see what happens when you cram 45 years of a writer's words into your brain, it's hardly going to lead to a nuanced appreciation of their skill. Anything consumed quickly and in large quantities is likely to lead to nausea. I especially think short stories should not be read in gulps, and even if some short stories do benefit from such an approach, Munro's most certainly do not.

Kyle Minor has not been nauseated from gorging himself on the rich feast of Munro's fiction, and so his defense of her work is well done: specific, detailed, thoughtful, informed. These two paragraphs, for instance, offer a good example of the virtues of his method:
By 1998, the year of the publication of “The Love of a Good Woman,” Munro had begun to mute the way the new kinds of stories wore their form like an exoskeleton, and created a series of stories in which the freedom the previous two books had opened could now be stretched out into in more organic ways, a development that reached its crescendo in “Hateship, Friendship’s” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a novel compressed into 40-some pages in which, as Lorentzen tells it, “a woman with dementia forgets her husband and directs her affections toward another resident.” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is Munro’s crowning achievement, a story in which a writer is operating without a net, in absence of constraints, offering in greatest fullness a character for whom ordinary consciousness has been transmuted into some other thing, a story whose only rival in this regard is “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter’s novella of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.

Throughout the years she was writing “Friend of My Youth,” “Open Secrets,” “The Love of a Good Woman” and “Hateship, Friendship,” Munro was making history, culture, power and time her subjects. Lorentzen complains that “people’s residential and familial histories” come up “all the time in the stories … details she never leaves out,” without understanding that these are the details that accumulate, that the characters gnaw on until they explode like fireworks at story’s end, where, as in Chekhov’s best story, “Gusev,” we realize that the story is an avatar of all the world’s other stories, and that the song of the individual is given to grandeur in part because of the way it connects to all the music that came before and all the music that will come after. In this regard, sometimes Munro seems to have made a single dyspeptic organism of the whole universe.
Minor's worst tendency is his fondness for grandiose statements*, but he knows Munro's work well and, most importantly, has the kind of sympathy for it that allows him to write intelligent analysis. Sympathy is certainly not required for intelligent analysis, as critical insight can sometimes result from fierce antipathy, but Lorentzen's antipathy is too idiosyncratic to overcome his uncomprehending bluster and lead him toward insight.

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*"Gusev" is Chekhov's best story, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is Munro's story's "only rival in this regard" — as if "Gusev" is not one among quite a few examples of Chekhov at his best in different ways, and as if Minor has read every story ever written and therefore knows that only Porter was Munro's rival.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved Munro but felt there was something in her that stopped short of absolute insight and honesty. I have a hard time putting it into words except to say that she skirts the tragic in a way that, say, Coetzee does not (in fact, to me he moves ever more deeply towards it).

    But I think the long title story in "Too Much Happiness" reaches the tragic. It is the one story of hers that I find unforgettable. It seems to me that she was able to contextualize people's inability to love in a way that opened it into something historical, political, existential -- while never becoming grandiose. It had the great qualities of her psychologically acute domestic fiction without the narrowness, and wariness of embracing the tragic, that it can also suffer from.

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