Compassion Doesn't Equal Morality

Kerr and Shulevitz

Compassion Doesn't Equal Morality

Kerr and Shulevitz

Compassion Doesn't Equal Morality
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 30 1998 12:27 PM

Kerr and Shulevitz

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Dear Judith,

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I'm trapped between a rock and a hard place here. Anything I say now will sound like an attack on Moore and Munro, which is so much harsher than I feel. I admired lots about these stories; they just didn't stimulate me to want to talk on and on and on. Perhaps I am guilty of gliding over my reactions--consigning them to the yadda yadda yadda pile. But as an editor, you know the risk of asking a writer to opine about something that didn't really hit home with her.

Be fair, though: I certainly don't lump these two writers together. I think they're quite different, and I strongly prefer Lorrie Moore. Unlike you, I was really riveted by "People Like That Are the Only People Here," Moore's story about the rage of a mother whose baby contracts cancer. It was hilarious, unpredictable, and sad in ways that seemed relevant and earned. And I think it rebuts your point that all stories have been told before, so it's okay to tell 'em over and over again. Just because there's a limited number of themes in the world doesn't mean the writer doesn't have a responsibility to refresh them. That's what Moore does here, rather profoundly. She comments on the selfishness (and precariousness) of modern yuppie comfort; the cold clinicality and  scary gaps in modern medical knowledge; the possible immorality of the fiction writer who attempts  to describe such suffering. For the first time that I've read, anyway, she puts a particular, contemporary kind of abyss into words. And the intensity of the subject intensifies her language. Sometimes her wordplay can seem facile, but here it describe legitimate horrors. I can see why the story has gotten so much attention, and I think it's not hype but deserved.

Other stories in the collection I found less amazing--still strong, but mostly relationship stuff, which it's harder to do something new with. I do appreciate Moore's energy, and her jokes.  I laughed especially at the depressed aging actress who quits Hollywood and gets bad investment advice and discovers one day that she is the major stockholder of a worthless company.

 Lorrie Moore is funny and awake. In Munro, I don't really see either of these strengths. Did you notice how many stories in The Love of a Good Woman are set in rural Canada in the early '60s? They tell about late-stage McCarthyism, and women not being able to get abortions or being pressured by domineering fathers and husbands; the Kennedy-Krushcev plays on TV in the background. I suppose Munro's fans would argue that the collection amounts to an elegaic summary of her great themes. On the surface, she appears to be taking up the baton from passed from Chekhov (poor man, to be invoked so often and so thoughtlessly) to Sherwood Andersoon to, say,  Flannery O'Connor. The provinciality of her characters gives her a kind of control group in which to trace boomeranging human emotions. It allows her to portray people with limited options--limited options being, after all, a universal human condition.

 But I think Munro works too complacently in this tradition. Too often I find her provinciality to be just that--a question of habit and what she knows, and not so insightful. There are a lot of assumptions about what a short story should be that she takes for granted. The limited options thing is one. The rhythm that seems to climb up a peak of sadness but stops short near the end and looks out on a vista of fragile ambiguity. The detail for the sake of detail, because that's what you do in a story. There is a sentence in one story, a description of someone's home that I jotted down in a notebook and put a frownie face next to.  "Heavy side curtains with wine-colored leaves on a beige ground and the net curtains in between." 

When I read Munro, I feel like I'm trapped behind those heavy curtains, longing for air. I find it hard to write about this, to sound so critical, because I see the good intentions and the compassion in Munro's work that you so admire.  But compassion that exactly conforms to a preconceived idea of compassion--I'm just not sure this is the same thing as morality. You could even argue that it's mildly immoral for a writer not to try harder, not to challenge herself to imagine more. On this note, I'm tempted to put in another plug for Borges, and the morality of taking nothing for granted. But it's getting late--and you've established how hideously boring that would be!  I think we've mapped out an interesting difference in sensibility here, and we'll leave it at that.  For now....

Sarah

 

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Sarah Kerr reviews books and movies for
Slate. Judith Shulevitz is Slate's New York editor. This week they discuss Alice Munro's Love of a Good Woman (Knopf; 320 pages; $24), Lorrie Moore's Birds of America (Knopf; 291 pages; $23), and Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions (Viking; 560 pages; $40).