Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Jane Smiley as a Nobel laureate. Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
In the collections of short stories Alice Munro has published since 1968, her great gift has been observation. Whether her protagonist has just gotten a job in a turkey slaughterhouse or has decided to take a road trip with her husband and two small daughters across the northern United States, the details she notes are so precise and evocative that they enter a reader’s mind as if they were the reader’s own memories — not similar, something like, but that very thing.
I can’t think of another writer whose every paragraph is so quietly powerful. Munro does not assert, she describes and suggests. The world she evokes seems at first mundane. When she started out in the 1960s and ’70s, her stories were set close to home: rural Ontario, Vancouver, inside the house or out in the farmyard. But she understands the meaning of every detail and its connection to the larger pulse of aspiration and disappointment, love and death.
Munro’s earlier collections explored her life and her background. The closest she came to writing a novel was her second book, “Lives of Girls and Women.” Her protagonist, Del, seems to be a version of the author, but although the stories revolve around her, it is evident that Del is more interested in the idiosyncrasies of her relatives than she is in her own life. Munro has said that the short story stands on its own and does not have to be a writer’s preparation for her novel, but perhaps what she learned from “Lives of Girls and Women” was that she had too many ideas for novels, that instead she had to pour a novel’s worth of insights into every story, and indeed, she has.
Her specialty is emotional depth — in setting the fuse (a girl witnesses her father carrying the body of a boy she knows who has drowned) and understanding the explosion (decades later, a mother looks across the surface of a swimming pool and realizes that her own child has disappeared.)
When I was learning to write, Munro was not one of those chest-pummeling males of my parents’ generation, the ones I had to turn away from because their voices were so loud. Her voice was practically a whisper, saying: “Look around you! Look within! But look closely, carefully. The world is more complex than you realize.” In Munro’s stories, the traditional female subjects of family relationships and marriage got deeper, more important, and I believed her. I wonder, what do I owe to her? At this point, I don’t know. It is as if her way of writing has suffused the world itself.
Later in her career, Munro moved further afield. She wrote about the lives of earlier generations of Canadians, and, eventually, about her own relatives, the Laidlaws, in her 2006 collection, “The View From Castle Rock.” These historical stories are as incisive and true as her autobiographical ones. With every word, the reader thinks, “Oh, that’s the way it was.” Emigration to the Western Hemisphere was not an epic journey, but a set of individual journeys, taken step by step, mundane and dangerous at the same time. The book as a whole illuminates both history and literature from the perspective of not the writer but the ones who knew them, who had their own ideas and adventures. It is perhaps Munro’s most ambitious and original work, but there is something self-effacing about it. As always, Munro seems to lose herself in her material rather than to be asserting claims to greatness.
But of course she is great, has been great almost since the beginning, a writer who seems to have found her voice and her subject and her audience immediately, to have set out with supreme confidence in her ability, not to know what she was talking about, but to find out what she must talk about.
In her latest collection, “Dear Life,” she revisited some of her early material in a way that struck me that maybe only Alice Munro is capable of — with wisdom, forgiveness, new understanding. The greatness of Alice Munro is that she is always observing, always curious.
The Nobel Prize honors itself by awarding her.
Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres.” Her short story, “Lily,” brought her an O. Henry Award in 1985.