For a time, it seemed reviewers could only praise the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro while also noting that she was 'underrated' or 'underappreciated'. Jonathan Franzen, in an often-quoted review of her collection Runaway, stated: 'I want to [take] some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.'
Franzen's rhapsody was always slightly at odds with Munro's style. She has a particular fondness for characters who drop out of sight or whose most meaningful actions are conducted in obscurity. Secrets are revealed in her stories, but not usually in the lives they describe. It is hard to believe that she would be dismayed at not being as famous as Franzen.
Perhaps inevitably, Munro is now in danger of moving from being 'underrated' to 'overrated', almost without an intervening stage. In a recent review for the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen complains: 'Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor.' He suggests that 'a yearning [in readers] to be repressed... seems to explain a lot about Munro's popularity and acclaim'.
Lorentzen's review has much in common with a recent assessment by Duncan Wu in Arete. Wu concentrates on 'Train', a story from Munro's recent collection Dear Life, which he takes as symptomatic of her limited ability to write male characters:
'Ultimately, [Jackson's] life is unexamined and inexplicable. He lacks motivation and what all fictional characters must possess: the uniquely human ability to surprise. Instead of an enigma, Munro might have ventured an explanation. Joyce takes us into the bathroom with Bloom to show him masturbating - not a place Munro would go.'
Wu's yearning to see Jackson masturbate might be taken as nostalgia for the modernist's capacity to shock. Or perhaps it springs from his desire for some sort of 'explanation' of Jackson's serial flight from intimacy (just as he, rather unconvincingly, seeks a psychological link between Munro's fiction and her recollections of her early life). Either way, Wu is offering Munro bad advice ('venture an explanation... show him masturbating'). W.H. Auden thought that, beside Jane Austen, 'Joyce seems as innocent as grass'. Wu's critique is innocent in the same way - it misses much of the point.
Jackson both is and is not the centre of the story 'Train', just as he seems to drift out of the action of his own life. At the start, he is a demobbed soldier who arrives at the dilapidated farm of a recluse named Belle. They settle into some sort of life together:
'And of course with Belle not a thing had to be spoken of. She was - he had found this out - sixteen years older than he was. To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything. She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.'
The 'it' here may be sex, but it is left undefined and one senses that much is not spoken of between them. Jackson is uncomfortable even when a local car dealer assumes that he and Belle are siblings. Later, he drifts out of Belle's life and goes to some lengths to avoid an encounter with an old flame who, it emerges, he had been due to meet when he jumped off a train at the start of the story:
'It was possible he would run into her right outside this door. Surprised only for a moment, as if she had always expected him. Holding out the possibilities of life, the way she thought she could.
Things could be locked up, it only took some determination.'
Alice Munro may write more often of women than of men, but such an imbalance in her fiction is no greater than (to take two different examples) in Charles Dickens or Philip Roth. And 'Train' is notable for its sympathetic depiction of Jackson, rather than of the female protagonists.
The irony in this quotation works - with some malice - against the woman's self-deception: 'the way she thought she could'. Jackson has more of the author's sense of reality as crooked and cruel, though this leaves him the choice only to 'lock up' his painful memories. He seems without precisely the sort of fantasy life that Wu (understandably) wishes for him. If he is enigmatic, it is partly because Munro honours the one thing Jackson can protect: his privacy.
It is often tricky to find the right form of praise. There is a temptation to adopt a writer's own tone and assessment of their work. Or there is a risk of overcompensating, as Lorentzen notes: '[Munro's] critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings.'
Munro has some limitations as a writer and there is repetition in her subject matter and use of the story form. Those who overstate her 'greatness' may have done her no favours, if such rhetoric detracts from her very real qualities. Munro's work is original and much more subtle than either Wu or Lorentzen allow.
Lorentzen thinks Munro pays too much attention to what is 'shabby' and 'grubby', to a realism of disappointments. She is certainly aware of the gap there may be between a life and the possibilities it once held, which Jackson senses (and perhaps cannot articulate). But what is striking about Jackson is his 'determination'. He has a surprising capacity to keep re-making his life, in spite of its pains. In that respect, at least, he might be taken as a portrait of the artist.