Manu Joseph: Alice Munro reported from inside the heads of women

Munro has said that when she started writing, only women read stories and men did something seemingly more important outside their homes.  (AP)
Munro has said that when she started writing, only women read stories and men did something seemingly more important outside their homes. (AP)


  • The author and literature Nobel laureate was chiefly interested in the lives of women, but the result wasn’t always compassion for women.

The short story is glorified by the gatekeepers of literature, as though the genre is from an oppressed community. It is now common to hear that the short story is more difficult to write than the novel, and that women are better at it than men. But the person who they claim is the finest writer of short stories, Alice Munro, was more measured. She said she persisted with short stories because she couldn’t pull off a novel. “I don’t really understand a novel," she once told the New York Times, “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel…"

She died on 13 May at the age of 92. When she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2013, she became the first person to receive the honour exclusively for short stories, and one of the very few laureates, I feel, who were easy to read and a delight.

Her common analysis of herself as a writer was that she was a woman who was primarily interested in the lives of women and what women experienced. The result was not always compassion for women; but also something sterner, something more useful.

The narrator in her short story Friend of my Youth tells us, “…mother had grown up in a time and a place when sex was a dark undertaking for women. She knew that you could die from it. So, she honoured the decency, the prudery, the frigidity, that might protect you. And I grew up in horror of that very protection, the dainty tyranny that seemed to me to extend to all areas of life, to enforced tea parties and white gloves and all other sorts of tinkling inanities. I favoured bad words and a breakthrough, I teased myself with the thought of a man’s recklessness and domination."

She did write the male point of view sometimes. I don’t know what it is about the male characters of even great female writers, but these men make fine observations about curtains and upholstery. For instance, this moment in the short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain: “Grant caught sight of two layers of front-window curtains, both blue, one sheer and one silky, a matching blue sofa and a daunting pale carpet…"

Munro was kind to men, even considerate perhaps. When she reveals that Grant, who is married to the central character of the story, used to have affairs with his students, Munro appears to explain that it was very good for his spirits: “What he felt was mainly a gigantic increase in well-being… He ran up steps two at a time. He appreciated as never before a pageant of torn clouds and winter sunsets seen from his office window, the charm of antique lamps… Come summer, he learned the names of flowers."

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Munro has said that when she started writing, only women read stories and men did something seemingly more important outside their homes. This contributed to her initial success around a time when the most influential writers in Canada were all men. Even today, I am certain that most of Munro’s readers are women. Most readers of stories are women. They are the primary readers of men, too.

Male writers, in general, do not believe that they write about men, or that they are primarily interested in the lives of men. They would claim that their interest is wider and universal, about humans and not gender. They might be more wrong than they think, nevertheless most of their readers are women. The literary success of men is often a reward given by women.

In a previous column, I had written that women appreciate the works of men, they are generous to exceptional men, but men, in general, do not engage much with the works of exceptional women. It is this gap in generosity that partly finances the progress of men. A similar imbalance in interest favours the West and its artists. 

We engage more with their works than they do with ours. In this imbalance, Munro is a beneficiary. Indians who have never read a single Indian short story may have read Munro. She may not have read any book by an Indian. But her elevation to greatness might have a more interesting reason.

She has been successful for about five decades, even acclaimed now and then, but the literary establishment began to call her a legend less than 20 years ago, when she was in her 70s. This happens to many artists, and not because they do their best work in old age.

Greatness is not defined by sales figures. It is not a democratic vote. The establishment picks the greats. And establishment writers are usually reluctant to praise their peers. Asked to name the greatest among them, they pick someone who is not one of them. 

Sometimes they pick a safe foreigner, or a person from the oppressed classes, but often they pick an old person. This is how Meryl Streep is the world’s “greatest actress" and why many Indian writers would pick R.K. Narayan as “the greatest" and the West came to rate Alice Munro as the world’s best short-story writer.

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Munro appeared to see her rise to greatness with a detached amusement. She began writing in her spare time, in between raising her children and running a home. Many writers secretly feel that they are the world’s best ever, even though they may not have had the chance to read every writer. 

I get the feeling Munro was not someone who harboured such views about herself. When she spoke of herself, it was with a degree of self-effacement that was very persuasive. From the way she spoke about the process of writing and writing itself, I often got the feeling that she really did not consider literature the most important thing. I could never grasp, though, what mattered the most to her.

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