Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A question of taste

I'm sort of mesmerized as well as horrified by Jonathan Franzen's claims about Alice Munro in this weekend's NYTBR. Reading it made me feel like an alien from another planet. There is something resolutely and horribly normalizing about this piece! (And I say this as someone who liked The Corrections very much despite sort of wanting not to. It's a very good book. Not my kind of book, but a really excellent book that everybody should read, on the short list of top 20 American novels of last 10 years, say. And I don't mean that to sound insulting, that's my honest assessment! It's a compliment!) Here's what Franzen says about Munro:

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.

I basically disagree with everything he says. Alice Munro is an excellent writer. But I can't see by what criteria she's "the best fiction writer now writing in North America." (How can you say this, anyway? There are LOTS of 'best' fiction writers. It's very much a matter of taste, surely?) And how is Munro underappreciated? Uh, I had to read a book of hers in high school. It was fine. She's a good writer. It's not my cup of tea. (It was Lives of Girls and Women. It's republished in Vintage Contemporaries. Yeah, obscure and underappreciated.) Alice Munro's stories are regularly published in the New Yorker. A million people see them! Again, by what standard underappreciated? In what sense does her excellence exceed her fame? She's excellent, yeah. But Franzen admits it in his piece--she cycles around a relatively narrow set of topics, and her style is relatively fixed. She and William Trevor are both wonderful writers. If you gave me the choice of the complete works of Alice Munro versus those of Joyce Carol Oates, I'd take the latter any day. Style can only take you so far. Sensibility, intellectual range, ambition: all those are good things too. Maybe the JCO comparison isn't the clearest. But I feel that there's something in this Franzen-lauding-Munro that is really anathema to all my sensibilities. Anyway, what about the possibility that you can't HAVE a best at all when it comes to fiction? That you've always got to have a lot of crazy different voices?

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