I can think of no better illustration of the universality of Alice Munro's work than the memory of reading it in my twenties. I lived in a fifteenth-floor apartment in New York City, worked as an editor at The Paris Review, took the crosstown bus dressed in the city uniform of black stockings, skirts, and pumps bought on sale. My love affairs tended to be of the wistful variety—from afar if not altogether imaginary.
Yet I read Alice Munro's stories of adulterous wives, and country girls gutting turkeys, with the page-turning avidity of someone discovering her own true future. The managing editor, Jeanne McCulloch, did the same. We read them deeply personally, to learn how to live. Without really garnering the permission of our boss, George Plimpton, we planned to interview Munro for The Paris Review. We hoped by this to achieve for her a kind of canonization.
No writer in his right mind would have wanted canonization to depend on us. Though we read the stories over and over, we were also terribly busy, figuring out not only the craft of writing rejection letters but also the tricks of making a living in New York City. We met Alice Munro and her editor at the Chelsea brownstone of her agent, Virginia Barber, where the three women seemed occupied and prosperous, in the middle of life. They talked about shopping with the exhilaration of serious women who don't often shop. We started the interview, and in the fashion typical of The Paris Review (often edited by would-be writers in their twenties), it languished for seven years.
Making a case for Alice Munro in 2001 is not what making a case for Herman Melville would have been in the 1880s, or for Henry James at the time of the New York Editions, early in the 1900s. Since The Beggar Maid most reviews have been stellar; Munro has received all the major Canadian literary prizes and our National Book Critics Circle Award. (As a Canadian, she is not eligible for our National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize; Her last five books have not been short-listed for the Booker Prize, because the Booker no longer considers short-story collections.) So splitting hairs about precisely to which tier of the pantheon she belongs can feel a bit like carping that Proust, Joyce, and Kafka never won the Nobel Prize. But when educated general readers talk about the great living fiction writers, Munro isn't consistently mentioned with Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Three reasons come to mind. First, Munro writes about the "lives of girls and women," to quote the title of her one novel, their conflicts, comedy, milestones, irony, and domestic detail, vacuuming and all. We are still, despite thirty years of feminism, a culture that considers the word "domestic" when applied to fiction to mean "tamer" and even "less." Munro's reach has become vast in recent collections, but her stories about the western expansion, about North American history, and even about murder are centered on a credible female character. Second, she, like the great majority of writers, has claimed a specific fictional geography, and hers—midwestern rural Canada—does not have any particular edge or sexiness. Third, she writes short stories. The roughly contemporary writers most akin to her in sensibility, the late Illinoisan William Maxwell and the Irish William Trevor (both writers of exquisite short stories and also novels), share her relative obscurity. They, like Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, and Marilynne Robinson, are sometimes said to be "writers' writers," meaning that most people haven't ever heard of them.