lydia millet on alice munro

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

“As the Grande Dame of Canadian realism, Munro is widely and rightly admired, both nationally and internationally, for the care of her craft, the economy of her sentences and the dignified reserve of her characterizations. She’s been virtually canonized by literary institutions in Canada and the United States and has been boldly called, by the more recently canonized American realist Jonathan Franzen, among others, the best living writer in North America.

And of course, it is realism that reigns supreme, in Canada and the United States, though probably not in Europe, as the most popular and legitimate literary style. And yet — and yet — given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision — why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.

Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.

These problems are rarely starvation or war; they tend to be adultery or career disappointment, say, which leaves us with a literary culture whose preoccupation is not meaning or beauty, not right or wrong, not our philosophies or propensity for atrocities or corrupt churches and governments, but rather our sex lives, our social mistakes, our neighbourhood failures and sibling rivalries. Enlightenment humanism finds a kind of perfect expression here: If our deliberations about our personal lives, consisting of a near-infinite scrutiny of the tiny passages through which we move in relation to friends and lovers, constitutes the best calling of art, must such self-scrutiny not also be our own highest calling and rightful task?

And if this self-scrutiny is the chief work of our lives, does the rest of existence not drop neatly away? It may be worth asking simply whether, in a culture where mainstream society is already wholly consecrated to the worship of self, literary culture should be consecrated to the same faith.”

The review, entitled Alice in Familyland, is archived here.

This is exactly how I feel about much of today’s “literary fiction”. All of those resplendent metaphors and innovative word choices and toned prose styles — but to what end? To chronicle discontent and ennui among swathes of the privileged, the bored, the middle aged? So that dude’s lonely. So that girl steals to jolt herself alive. It’s all so exasperatingly small-minded. Better to be like Dorothy Dunnett or George R. R. Martin, who inspire fanaticism in place of critical monocle-peering.

I’m addressing this to myself too. It’s like I want to do pan-sexual werewolves in Victorian-era London but all I know to do (all I’ve known to do since age 15) are quiet domestic vignettes about the ordeal of the lost fingernail clipper.


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