Near the beginning of this New York Times Magazine "profile" of Alice Munro, we are told that "she is famously private, someone who needs to be coaxed into giving interviews and finds book touring an ordeal." She ought to have continued to insist on her privacy and turned down this opportunity to meet with Daphne Merkin as well.
Is there some reason why Merkin, who calls Munro "one of our greatest contemporary writers of fiction," also had to tell us that she has "relatively unlined skin," that one finds an "undercurrent of quiet amusement emanating from her gray-green eyes"? Why Munro needed to be quoted as saying that ''I was bulimic for a while before the word existed. I thought I was the only person who discovered it. Most women I knew got a heavy maternal figure. I was determined not to, as part of maintaining my identity.'"? Why we need to know that Daphne Merkin feels "A witty, sometimes brutally observant self, held in check by the need to pass herself off as conventionally and graciously female" while talking to her?
In what way does it help us understand Alice Munro's fiction to know that, where her eldest daughter is concerned, Munro confesses ''She wasn't the utter joy of my life she might have been. I was emotionally more open to the second''? That in high school "I was nice looking, but they left me alone. I would have been so unhappy if I had married one of the boys I went to high school with"? That "Having married at 30 after carving out an independent existence for herself as a schoolteacher, her mother seems always to have yearned for more psychologically and financially luxuriant vistas"?
Is this all a way of cutting the writer down to size, reminding us that, as accomplished a writer as she might be, nevertheless as a human being she's had the same problems as the rest of us, has been as clueless about how to live as we all are? Didn't we already know this? Don't we always know that a given writer has had her share of problems and disappointments, that after searching around for "more clues to the psychological whereabouts" of this writer we're only going to find the same old familiar things? What makes us think that a writer's life must have special interest, or at least that we can't understand her work unless we know for sure her life hasn't? Is this a way of avoiding the task of reading the work in the first place, of finding some external and easy solution to the problem of paying attention to the work itself, taking it on its own terms and settling for the incomplete understanding we'll surely end with?
Must we treat even serious writers of fiction or poetry as if they were celebrities to be interviewed and examined for the quality of their clothing? I have never understood the idea that novels or poems, or even a writer's entire body of work, can't be assessed without knowing something further about the personal circumstances behind them. Nor why biographies of writers have become such a cottage industry. With a few exceptions, most such biographies I have read are essentially excuses for spreading gossip or engaging in ludicrous psychological speculation. Even when the speculation might even illuminate some aspect of the writer's troubled life, rarely does it help us come to terms with the work. Nothing in Daphne Merkin's article helps me understand Alice Munro's fiction more clearly, or, since I have not in the past actually found her fiction all that engaging, why I should it give it another chance. Shouldn't either or both of these goals be more important than that she has "coiffed silvery gray hair," in contrast to "the slightly unkempt curls of her early photos"?