Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership. At the risk of sounding like a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer — and maybe you’ve learned to recognize and evade these pleas? The same way you’ve learned not to open bulk mail from certain charities? Please give generously to Dawn Powell? Your contribution of just 15 minutes a week can help assure Joseph Roth of his rightful place in the modern canon? — I want to circle around Munro’s latest marvel of a book, ”Runaway,” by taking some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.
1. Munro’s work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem here being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.
2. As long as you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data. Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation’s history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters’ concerns are familiar to you, and if you become so involved with a book that you can’t put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you’re merely being entertained.
3. She doesn’t give her books grand titles like ”Canadian Pastoral,” ”Canadian Psycho,” ”Purple Canada,” ”In Canada” or ”The Plot Against Canada.” Also, she refuses to render vital dramatic moments in convenient discursive summary. Also, her rhetorical restraint and her excellent ear for dialogue and her almost pathological empathy for her characters have the costly effect of obscuring her authorial ego for many pages at a stretch. Also, her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.(…)