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15 May 2024

Alice Munro was the writer’s writer

The Canadian author, who has died at the age of 92, changed literature with her domestic, expansive stories.

By Megan Gibson

“The stories of Alice Munro,” the American writer Ethan Canin is said to have once remarked, “make everyone else’s look like the work of babies.” It is not the highest praise the Canadian writer has ever received – over the course of her decades-long career she drew favourable comparisons to Chekov, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, and won innumerable prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 – but Canin had a point. Munro, who died on 13 May at the age of 92, in a nursing home in Port Hope, Ontario, after suffering from dementia for more than a decade, was one of the greatest short-story writers to ever live.

In terms of craftsmanship, she did more for the profile of the short story than any other modern writer. Over just a few pages of clean, stripped-back prose, Munro could convey her characters’ familial and personal histories, while also mapping both the geographical terrain and social structures of their rural hometowns. She was a master of structure; Daniel Menaker, one of her editors at the New Yorker, wrote in 2006: “The structure of a Munro story works somewhat like a microscope, so that the closer in the reader focuses, the more the form dissolves and reassembles. Then as one gets to the end of the story, one sees what appears to be a whole cloth.”

Her stories are domestic, predominantly set in rural Ontario’s Huron County and populated with complex women reckoning with often disappointing circumstances. But within that familiar terrain, Munro could always tap new rich veins. Her setting may have seemed narrow, but the themes she returned to were enormous in scope: the slipperiness of both time and memory, the tyranny of social expectation and the destructive power of sexual desire. A line in her 1971 book Lives of Girls and Women encapsulates the lives of her characters: “dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”.

She was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931 in the rural part of south-west Ontario she would later immortalise in her stories. Her farmer father and schoolteacher mother weren’t affluent and, particularly after her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, often struggled financially. She attended the University of Western Ontario on scholarship, where she met her first husband, a bookseller called Jim Munro. The couple moved to British Columbia and had four daughters: one died shortly after birth. When her children were small, Munro stole pockets of time to write in between her domestic demands, selling short stories to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a number of Canadian journals. (She told the Paris Review that during this time of her life she was stretched so thin she thought “this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack”.) She and Jim divorced in 1973, and Munro moved back to Ontario where she married another university friend, a cartographer and geographer named Gerald Fremlin.

She didn’t publish her first story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, until 1968 at the age of 37, but she was successful immediately. That first collection won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award and was a bestseller, as would be her 13 subsequent collections. International fame took a few more years but by the late 1970s she was published regularly in the New Yorker. In 2009 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work.

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For a renowned author whose career spanned decades, Munro’s biography is relatively sparse. She kept a low profile and, apart from her work, was mostly known for her decency. Menaker, her New Yorker editor, explained what a joy she was to work with: “She is open, congenial, never rancorous or contentious; she has no vanity, she welcomes suggestions, and is both easy but firm on her part regarding things she doesn’t want to do.” In 2009, Munro turned down a nomination for Canada’s Giller Prize for her collection Too Much Happiness, saying that she had already won the prize twice before and she wanted to leave the field to a younger generation of writers.

By the time she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, Munro had reached the status of “international literary sainthood”, according to her friend Margaret Atwood. In the Nobel award ceremony speech, the Swedish author and historian Peter Englund raved, “If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later, in one of her short stories, you will come face to face with yourself; this is an encounter that always leaves you shaken and often changed, but never crushed.”

As revered as she is, Munro’s work wasn’t without its critics. In a scathing essay in the London Review of Books in 2013, Christian Lorentzen described a Munro short story, not inaccurately, as a “slice of sad life in the sticks” and noted that “reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder”. Somewhat more brattishly, Bret Easton Ellis took to Twitter following her Nobel win to call her “so completely overrated”.

Both critiques were met with a kind of defensive disbelief. In response to Lorentzen’s essay, one LRB reader, Robert Barrett, wrote to the paper: “I just ate ten two-pound boxes of See’s chocolates. I feel terrible. The chocolates must be bad.” In response to Ellis, the late Canadian comedian Norm MacDonald delighted in roasting the novelist on Twitter over several days; one highlight: “It’s interesting to see Alice Munro, the writer’s writer, criticized by Bret Easton Ellis, the talentless hack’s talentless hack”.

Munro was the writer’s writer. The novelist Richard Ford once said, “You’ll just mention her, and everybody just kind of generally nods that she’s just sort of as good as it gets.” In a 2004 review of Munro’s collection Runaway, Jonathan Franzen wrote: “She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

Alice Munro worked to earn that devotion. Though a number of her characters would grapple with their own feelings about the futility of writing, the impossibility of capturing something authentic in words alone, Munro herself would carry on writing.

In her early work Lives of Girls and Women, a writer character called Del Jordan, thought by many critics to be a stand-in for Munro, spells out the dizzying ambition of her writing. What Jordan wants to accomplish, Munro writes, is nothing less than “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.”

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