Alice, What’s the Matter?

October 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve just been on the phone with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and they’ve confirmed that I’ll probably lose my right to residency for publishing this post. Or they would have, if they actually had phone lines to call.

(The title of this post is not an entirely gratuitous Terrorvision reference, since the lyrics are oddly apposite to the case at hand.)

Alice Munro: Nobel winner. Every time I read an Alice Munro book, which is once every few years when I start to suspect, once again, that I must be missing something, I quite enjoy it. I admire her sentences and her clever ability to know people, to get at what is “true” in the small details of motivation and grey thinking. But once I’ve finished the book (and this year, wanting—and failing—to be Christian Lorentzen, I even read two back-to-back) I fail to find a bigger mental home for the ideas in it. When there’s a Munro on my shelf I don’t race to pick it up because I think I already know what’s in it.

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Yesterday I spotted only one Canadian expressing disagreement with the general Alice-adoration. I’m sure there were many I didn’t see, but the people I saw referring to negative reactions to the gong were mainly talking about dreading the backlash. This tweeter enjoyed Munro’s early books but felt that later ones covered already-worked ground. Across the pond, various male UK critics and writers—all of whose opinions I respect—got into a little spat about Munro’s importance. I agreed with them all to some extent—with Lee Rourke’s opinion that Munro’s “work is necessary and great to read. It speaks to us, shows us ourselves. But what does it disrupt? What does it fracture?” as well as with Stuart Evers’ retort (admittedly not quite in response to this particular tweet): “Oh for fuck’s sake, Lee that is just utterly bollocking bollocks.”

Mine is probably the worst kind of philistinism, the kind that blows in the wind, veering first one way and then the other. Munro’s writing inspires admiration while I’m reading it but I don’t find it exhilarating. In the end, though, Rourke and Evers don’t find themselves quite as far apart as the above suggests. Their reactions and responses to Munro’s writing are similar, with both admiring her and recognising the “truth” in her writing. What they disagree about is its importance.

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Since I’m female, the dismissal of a woman writer as unimportant purely because she doesn’t disrupt the dominant cultural energy is a luxury I can’t enjoy, however ambivalent I might feel about the writer’s works. Alice Munro is 82: we readers less than half her age and of a certain political persuasion have simply not had to live in the world whose dominant cultural energy she did in fact disrupt. The fact that a female author is considered worthy of transmitting these mainstream ideas is something I find just as significant as concerns over her adventurousness or lack of it. One of her collections is called Lives of Girls and Women. Does your average man-reader, one looking for fiction that reflects a majority experience back at him, go into a bookshop and pick that up?

Recently I heard Kathleen Winter talking about writing. A question from an audience member asked her if she felt social pressure to write strong female characters. The questioner (who was perhaps in his twenties) may not have intended it this way, but the implication was that this might not be representative of how women truly are. Winter pointed out that she spent many years writing—and feeling pressure to write—stories with strong male characters because that’s what the literary establishment likes and rewards. The dominant cultural energy is not so very changed after all.

The original point of this post, before I got sidetracked with working out what I actually felt about Munro and the critical scepticism, was to point out that beyond the big names (Munro, Ondaatje, Atwood) CanLit is a diverse place, even if much of its more experimental side never gets to travel beyond the borders. For readers whose taste is more Goldsmiths Prize than Richard and Judy, I’ll be writing next week about some disruptive Canadian writers you really should have a look at.

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§ 3 Responses to Alice, What’s the Matter?

  • joyceahood says:

    As you recognize, but maybe not enough, Alice Munroe was disruptive in her depiction of a young woman not satisfied to get her MRS. I was struggling to be the perfect wife in 1963 and failing so badly I was about to break down, when I decided to continue my career and let a motherly woman look after my kids. Munroe’s early books were a haven for like-minded girls and women. The stories are still subversive, but subtly. To me, they are corrective. Am I slipping back into self-effacing caretaking of others even at this late age?

  • joyceahood says:

    But, hey, I am Canadian! (See above)

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Joyce. Sorry for the delay in acknowledging you–I’ve been frozen out of my own blog for days! One of the reasons I posted was because I felt that discussions elsewhere about her importance/lack of it were getting worryingly close to dismissing her for being narrow/domestic/all the usual criticisms of women writers. But there was a lot implied behind the scenes in my post. Too bad blogs don’t have editors…

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