The Lives of Girls and Women: the Writing of Alice Munro
*Grateful acknowledgement is made to The Center for Fiction where this essay first appeared. A portion of this tribute is also included in a multi-author tribute to Alice Munro on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog.
I think I started reading Alice Munro in the early 1980s. I think the first book was The Lives of Girls and Women. It was an odd title, but I was drawn to it, because, if you’re a woman, that title reminds you that your own experience is different from others – by others I mean men, whose experience dominates the literary world—and suggests that your experience merits its own book.
What would it be, I wondered, this book about the lives of girls and women?
I was also a bit suspicious, because I thought it might be a feminist polemic, which didn’t interest me. And, snootily, I was suspicious because “girls and women” is a phrase that suggests a minor and insignificant subject. It’s a phrase that’s used dismissively. “If this were easy we’d have girls do it”: That kind of thing. The very notion of girls and women seemed somehow less interesting.
That notion had been inculcated into me. Restricting yourself to the experience of girls and women? Weren’t you defining yourself as marginalised? It seemed that, if you were going to write, you should write like a man, because that was the model. The great writers were men, so it was they whom we should emulate. Write like a man! The women I knew were trying to out-men the men. Who cared about the lives of girls and women? It was the lives of men we had all read about, for all our reading lives.
I was Stockholm-syndroming, and identifying with those in power, so I was prepared to dismiss the book. The real stuff, the serious, powerful stuff, whatever it was, would be found in the lives of boys and men. Women couldn’t write great literature because we couldn’t have the great experience, and we couldn’t have the great experience because we were women. It was a moebius loop.
This was still true, though other things about literature had changed. Shakespeare and Sophocles told stories of monarchs, because those men held the fate of a whole country in their hands. Whatever happened to them reverberated through the lives of their subjects. Well enough, but when we did away with monarchs we needed to find more populist subjects, ones who would represent the spirit of democracy, the common man. (Notice how I said “common man” and not “common woman”? It just falls that way, off the tip of my pen. Even the laptop keyboard writes “common man” more easily than “common woman.” )
We switched from monarchs to simpler folks, but still they were men. Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Wright: it seemed as though the great experience was always that of men. And, honestly, we had to admit that the men had fascinating lives, complex and dangerous. Physical peril, big risks, big thoughts. Whatever we did we couldn’t be them, nor could we imitate them. Women didn’t go on whaling ships, and what, that we did, could match the titanic struggle between man and leviathan? Everything in the literary world reaffirms the notion that men’s experience is superior to women’s: look at the list of literary award winners. It’s men’s experience that we celebrate, that’s the real one.
So I opened The Lives of Girls and Women already biased, prepared to see it as minor and secondary.
I don’t need to tell you what happened, except to say that Munro’s work widened my understanding of what’s important, in literature and in life.
Like Chekhov, Munro doesn’t have a political point to make. She isn’t sexist, she has no axe to grind. She’s simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that the lives of girls and women, even of those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as the lives of boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river or hunt whales. Women’s lives, too, are driven by the great forces that drive all important experience. As it turns out, all those forces are internal: rage, love, jealousy, spite, grief, passion. These are the things that make our lives so wild and dramatic, whether the backdrops are harpoons or swing sets. The great experiences can be set anywhere, a dentist’s office, a neighbor’s living room, a country road at night. It’s those driving, breathtaking, suffocating forces inside us that make those moments so vivid and shocking, it’s what’s inside us that cracks the landscape open, illuminating it like a streak of lightning. She showed us that, Alice Munro.
What we all lead are ordinary lives with extraordinary passages. It’s Munro who reminds us of this, and that the extraordinary is experienced by women as often as men, and it needn’t take place on a whaling ship. Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country, all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.
I was writing myself, of course, when I first started reading Munro, and I sent her a couple of fan letters. I sent her a story of mine that had been in The New Yorker, and she wrote back at once, “I loved that story when I first read it, and I love it now.” That was electrifying. It was like realising that a circuit existed between us, learning that this writer was also a reader, and that she’d read my words. And Munro wrote me a quote for a collection of my stories. I still have the postcard, framed, sitting on my desk. It starts, “Your book reached me here in Ireland, and delighted me no end.”
Her books have reached us all in Ireland, or Scotland, or rural Pennsylvania, or downtown New York, or wherever we are, and they have delighted us all no end. Because Munro is celebrating all of us; she is bearing witness to the most crucial and essential part of life, the deep interior drama of the person sitting next to you on the subway, the man who hands you your cup of coffee, the woman in the dry cleaner’s.
For women, the announcement of this award is a great moment. And for writers and readers of literary fiction it is a great moment. The award goes far beyond sexual politics, but it includes them. This is a radical moment: now the whole world has heard that the lives of girls and women are worth thinking about, writing about, reading about. Alice Munro has done it.
Roxana Robinson is a novelist, short story writer, biographer and essayist. She is the author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, as well as three short story collections, five novels, including Cost, which won the 2008 Maine Writers’ Fiction Prize, and was named one of the five best novels of the year by the Washington Post. Her most recent book (June, FSG) is the novel, Sparta, about a Marine lieutenant returning home from Iraq. It is reviewed here by the Washington Post. Robinson writes about literature and culture for the New Yorker Culture Blog, The Center for Fiction and Slate, as well as The New York Times and elsewhere.