On the day Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Slate culture writer Stephen Metcalf tweeted, “On Slate, Elizabeth Gilbert defends EPL by intimating sexism within the lit establishment. Minutes later, Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize.” Although I normally nod along with anything Metcalf says, this comment made me throw a little shade his way. One prize—weighty and Scandinavian though it may be—does not negate the very real sexism still prevalent on the pages of the New York Review of Books and its ilk. This is like arguing that Meryl Streep’s continued appearance on Oscar night accurately represents the ease with which aging women find work in Hollywood. One example does not, in fact, disprove all other counterexamples. And, as fellow Canadian lady-writer Margaret Atwood noted, Munro was herself the victim of the literary establishment’s dickishness when her early fiction was criticized for being too domestic, too small, and, obviously, too female.
Munro may be a self-effacing Canadian, who likely wouldn’t enjoy engaging in a battle over literary sexism, but she shouldn’t be used as a token example of talent trumping discrimination. Because her quiet and unassuming fiction is all about the seemingly invisible limitations imposed on women’s lives. Her form of social critique isn’t showy, and it doesn’t involve preaching. Instead, it’s about giving voice to a different type of woman: working-class women, older women, mentally-ill women, those women who normally appear only as tropes or stereotypes when they appear at all. So she isn’t a token. And she isn’t some apolitical stylist. She’s kind of a badass. And we shouldn’t forget it.
Although Munro’s win has been met with the almost universal acknowledgement that it’s about damn time, the reverent literary press has mostly painted Munro as some quaint grandmotherly figure who quietly pens brilliant sentences without ever opening a newspaper. Critics have celebrated her as a writer of elegant and quietly powerful short stories, but only a few media outlets have taken the time to discuss the content of these stories. Everyone highlights the fact that she didn’t publish her first story until the age of 37, but only a handful of critics have noted that this delay was due to domestic duties as well as the psychological limitations imposed on her by a culture that felt female writers were neglectful harpies with typewriters.
I first became aware of Munro when Jonathan Franzen penned an adoring review of her collection Runaway in 2004. Although I was just about to graduate from NYU with a major in English and a minor in gender studies, I had never read Munro, precisely because I had always been told that she was a little old-fashioned and merely a writer of dull, white-bread New Yorker fiction. But when I finally purchased one of her books, I was shocked not only because it was anything but dull (teenage pregnancies, kidnappings, affairs, oh my!) but because I encountered some of the most fully realized and recognizable women I had ever seen in print. Munro clearly empathized with these jilted, abandoned, ignored, and dying women, but she never pitied them. They were often victimized, but they were never victims. Because their interior lives were rich. Even though they were affected by their relationships with men, they weren’t defined by them. They continued to exist even after male attention waned, so they didn’t all throw themselves into the ocean every time a man behaved badly. After four years of reading about predominantly suicidal heroines, it was a relief to finish a few stories where the woman was left standing.
Munro also always treated her male characters with equal sympathy. Even when she was depicting a man cheating on his dying wife, she didn’t portray him as a cardboard monster just as she never painted the dying wife as some unblemished martyr. Instead, she has always highlighted the fact that the men who benefit from traditional gender norms may also be constrained and damaged by them—especially during difficult economic times when the supposed male “duty” to provide is well near impossible.
And the women and men in Munro’s stories are often struggling financially. Despite the American assumption that Canada is some egalitarian paradise, economic insecurity does indeed travel north. Munro frequently depicts those Canadians who are clinging to the ever-diminishing economic safety net, always at risk of losing their grip. And this is what makes the small moments of their daily lives carry such weight. The Bret Easton Ellis’s and Christian Lorentzen’s of the world may write Munro off as a mere “domestic” novelist (i.e., a lady writer writing about lady things) but only because they are incapable of seeing how the domestic lives she portrays are connected to the politics and economics of the larger world. Perhaps, in their limited mental universe, a shy, Canadian woman could never have such grand thoughts. Or perhaps they were distracted by her lack of an Adam’s apple and just got confused.
When critics repeat the mantra that Munro is, unlike recent Nobel laureates, not a political writer, they appear to be confusing political with polemical. Munro is certainly not a polemical writer. She isn’t interested in using hollow characters to win an argument or prove a simplistic point. She isn’t interested in portraying female saints, male monsters, or working-class heroes. Instead, she’s interested in exploring how conventional societal norms warp individual men and women. She’s interested in investigating the hundreds of small, heartbreaking moments that define and give meaning to constrained lives. So I don’t think it matters whether or not Munro calls herself a feminist. Her work has given voice to the lived reality of female experience. Which is a distinctly feminist and a distinctly political project. So when we’re celebrating her skill depicting a character with a well-placed adjective, perhaps we should also mention the marginalized women whose voices she’s taken such pains to release.