I always seem to second-guess my opinions on literary fiction, especially short stories, ESPECIALLY short stories centered around suburban ennui -- stuff that usually involves characters doing something normal and then they're reminded of something else that made them feel totally crappy about themselves. If I ever don't like something, I worry if I just don't get it. And if I ever DO like something, I worry if it's because I have a need to be a pretentious snot and should really just pick up a comic book or something.

Of course, nobody will convince me that story where a woman fell in love with a cow (not THAT way) in the wake of her disappointing marriage wasn't awesome. Or that other story I read that was basically Titanic but gay and on the Hindenburg wasn't shit. (I'm serious about that last one. Shit. Trust me.) But other writers, like Annie Proulx, make me go back and forth along that second-guessing thing ("But weird writing style!" "But intriguing yet despicable characters!" "But they all have names like Sarah Palin's kids!" "But ... but ... Wyoming!").

I think that's why I withheld judgment on Alice Munro for as long as I did, especially since I seemed to get the sense that this woman is a Canadian national treasure and I may very well be an American idiot. But having read around ten or so of her stories, I finally feel confident in saying that I really, really, really hate this writer.

I was first exposed to her in a writing class in college, where we had to read almost a whole book of her short stories, "Friend of My Youth." The teacher (who was pretty decent overall) LOVED her. He would go on and on about how she was a genius. Most of this hinged around her stories being able to cover the span of years and bucking the notion that short stories need to only be of one scene or a few days. They, he said, were like novels. And maybe they are. They're just novels I would NEVER WANT TO READ.

My biggest and crucial problem with Alice Munro is that while interesting things happen to her characters, I don't care about any of them. I don't mean that I necessarily have to like and approve of a character to find their story interesting (although I don't like or approve of anyone in Munro's stories), but I have to care about what happens to them. And ... really, interesting elements are THERE in a Munro story, but for me they never come together.

I think the reason why is I find Munro keeps her characters at a far reach from the reader. Even when she tells a story in first person, the main character is usually really talking about someone else. Usually I like this Great Gatsby-esque device, but in Munro's stories the main character tends to have contempt for or barely knows that someone else, so the distance between reader and character opens up again. I always get the feeling that this is intentional with Munro, that she's trying to explore the pain and tribulations of life and relationships by treating them all like some kind of science experiment.

But I think if you have characters who act as poorly as hers -- usually they're adulterers or murderers or selfish or losers -- you have to, as a reader, be emotionally invested in them in some way, either through some sort of fleeting sympathy or through I-can't-turn-away-what-will-they-do-next horror. One of the things I really loved about Tom Perrota's Little Children was how Perrota would make you feel so bad for the pedophile character because everyone was so mean to him in one scene, and in the next he would think/say/do something so totally horrible that you'd hate him, but then Perrota would make you feel for him in another scene. (It was something that, despite Jackie Earle Haley's fine performance, I don't think the movie did as well.)

Anyway, that's what I think WORTHWHILE writing does. But I never feel like Alice Munro's stories reach my emotions in any way. And, well, my teacher was right in that her stories have extremely long timelines. So I get the feeling that I'm watching someone who I don't care about's long, unfortunate life that begins badly and ends badly and nothing good happens in between. If Munro's stories leave me with any emotion, it's that life is nothing but a wasteland of misery and missed opportunity and yet somehow never allows me to feel BAD for this tragedy of existance. It's just the way things are ... isn't that such a fascinating phenomenon that we see from our ivory tower, analyzing it clinically through our microscope?

I recently read "The Wilderness Station" by her, because it was part of an anthology I was reading and I have a "must read every part of a book I own" fetish (LotR excepted). And even though I REALLY TRIED to like it, it was no dice again. The story had a lot of the elements I'm talking about. It was in letter format, almost all of the letters written by people who weren't a part of the central action of the story. And after we found out about the "truth" of the central action, the main characters' final confrontation happened off-stage and related by a character who didn't know the main characters that well and who was introduced AFTER the reader has learned what happened.

Yeah. I just ... no.

And her stories, at least for short stories, are REALLY LONG. Like 30 pages. So it's just a SLOG all the way through. And for what? Usually an extremely, extremely vague epiphany that never feels like it's worth the time. Fuck that.

So that's why I hate Alice Munro. I think I hate her enough I may just avoid any anthology that has her even in it in the future. It'll cut down on my "must read before I die" list, anyway. And then I can concentrate on people who are distant from their characters and their miserable lives but will give me the impression that they at least care what happens. Someone like Guy de Maupassant, maybe. Or Mary Gaitskill. Or Raymond Carver. Or ... yeah, you get the point.
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