AN APPRECIATION OF ALICE MUNRO
by Charles McGrath
Lisa Dickler Awano, Compiler and Editor
Alice Munro has always been a writer’s writer, and she has also become, for a short story writer, highly popular, simply for doing what she does. I believe that one of her great pieces of luck was living in Canada and being the person she is. She has stayed out of politics and hasn’t paid any attention to fashion—and the world has caught up with her, rather than the other way around. There are two kinds of writers: instinctive writers and thoughtful writers—that is, those who are conscious or aware of what they are doing. Alice Munro is both.
The first story we bought at the New Yorker was “Royal Beatings.” It was set in a different part of the world from the stories we usually published at that time, and it had an emotional freshness. It sounds funny to say now, but the story seemed kind of raw. I remember William Shawn, famous for his fastidious taste, was a little taken aback by the story’s references to “bathroom noises,” and a couplet that read, “Two Vancouvers fried in snot! / Two pickled arseholes tied in a knot!” I defended the inclusion of both. The final New Yorker version of the story included the reference to “arseholes,” but not to “bathroom noises.”
Munro is proof that some people—not many—have a gift for the short story and the novel. She writes novels in miniature. Her work most closely resembles Chekhov’s, but she is not writing sketches. She has a novel’s-worth of incident and character change compressed into a fairly short story. But her stories have gotten longer, which runs a little against the current. Early on, Munro began to play with time, and, over time, the stories got deeper, subtler, and richer. As her work evolved, Dan Menaker, William Shawn, Roger Angell, and I evolved as well, and it became clear we were talking to someone who wasn’t a fresh young thing from the boondocks, but a genuine master.
Munro is not a dramatically experimental writer, but in the last fifteen years she has been doing radically experimental things with form and with time and has been quietly demolishing our perceptions of what is and isn’t possible in the short story. She has become a great risk-taker. She takes structural risks. It’s dazzling how she gets from one point to another in a story. It’s not exactly linear. You could, if you wanted to, take a Munro story and outline it in cause and effect, in chronological fashion—and if you did, there would be big gaps in time, sometimes of whole decades—but she doesn’t write it that way. Sometimes a woman will want to change her life, and you’re not entirely sure why. Munro says that when she reads a story she doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning and read to the end. Rather, she may begin at any point in a story and then read either forward or backward from there. Maybe she writes for that kind of reader.
Increasingly she’s centering the stories on emotional risk-taking—which the reader may not know at the beginning—but they start at a moment when the character has the opportunity to change her life. These are not mere mood pieces. You have a sense sometimes, at the end of a story, that Munro herself is surprised by what has happened to her characters.