Twits in the Twitterverse: Ellis, Munro, and the Nobel

One splash Alice Munro’s winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature made stirred a teapot tempest in the Twitterverse, proving again, if any further evidence were called for, just how anathema Twitter is to thought. To wit, Brett Easton Ellis tweeted “Alice Munro is so completely overrated,” then expanded on his judgement an hour later:  “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages….” The cacophonous reaction was as swift, overwhelming, and damning as it was puerile.

First, I unreservedly applaud Munro’s winning the prize and the well-deserved attention the award will bring to her oeuvre. What interests me is why Ellis, given the kind of prose he writes, might be moved to remark what he does about the regard given Munro’s writing and the character of the Nobel Prize.

Even a passing familiarity with these writers’ works prompts an initial answer:  Ellis is a satirist of modern, urban life, whose writing is intimately bound up with the present, sociocultural moment, so much so his novels have been adapted to the screen and subject to virulent denunciations. Munro, on the other hand, is characteristically described by The New Yorker magazine fiction editor Deborah Treisman: “Her work is very provincial in that it’s based in small towns and rural parts of Canada for the most part. At the same time, what she does with the characters in those places is show us their universality, their humanity.” The same CBC article goes on to sum it up quite nicely:

Munro… has been called Canada’s Chekhov. Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary.

Munro’s stories focus on striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. They revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.

Clearly, the ends and means of Ellis’ and Munro’s writing couldn’t be more different. However much resentment might be blamed for Ellis’s tweet, the terms of praise for Munro’s work are revealing and illuminate the second part of Ellis’s second tweet concerning the Nobel Prize’s being “a joke.”

Munro’s stories are praised for focussing on character more than plot, on her characters’ “universality, their humanity.” The universal humanity of these characters is revealed in their experiencing “epiphanies” that illuminate their and by virtue of their universality our little slices of shared life. The critical idiom here is hardly as spontaneously universal as Munro’s characters’ epiphanies. Rather, it’s the discourse of a conservative, humanist, classicist aesthetic, the same operative, for example, in Yeats’  and Eliot’s being awarded the prize (despite their respective dalliances with fascism and antisemitism) but not Joyce. The drama and prose of the late Thomas Bernhard remain second to none in their stylistic bravura and social and existential profundity, but they would never have been considered for the prize precisely because of their obsessive style, pitiless intelligence, and relentless truthtelling. Examples could be multiplied.

The most telling judgement is Munro’s being called “Canada’s Chekhov.” But the Chekhov invoked here is the tamed, canonized caricature of the writer

who amazed his audiences in the early 1880s. He was particularly interested in the absurd, and repatterned the anecdote and vignette forms of the popular press into innovative forms of writing:  pieces in the guise of National Census questions, a test set by a mad mathematician, a proposal to the board of a medical school, the twisted “questions and answers” of popular women’s magazines….

The smug propriety of the praise showered on Munro is arguably as shallow as Ellis’ dismissal and the subsequent brainlessness of the backlash to his tweet. The bitter grain of truth in Ellis’ second tweet is that prizes, however much they materially further even a deserving writer’s career, are perhaps more revealing of literary values than of a writer’s worth.

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