Many of Munro's stories are set in Huron County, Ontario. Her strong regional focus is one of the features of her fiction. Another is the omniscient narrator who serves to make sense of the world. Many compare Munro's small-town settings to writers from the rural South of the United States. As in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, her characters often confront deep-rooted customs and traditions, but the reaction of Munro's characters is generally less intense than their Southern counterparts'. Her male characters tend to capture the essence of the everyman, while her female characters are more complex. Much of Munro's work exemplifies the literary genre known as Southern Ontario Gothic.
Munro's work is often compared with the great short-story writers. In her stories, as in Chekhov's, plot is secondary and "little happens." As with Chekhov, Garan Holcombe notes: "All is based on the epiphanic moment, the sudden enlightenment, the concise, subtle, revelatory detail." Munro's work deals with "love and work, and the failings of both. She shares Chekhov's obsession with time and our much-lamented inability to delay or prevent its relentless movement forward."
A frequent theme of her work, particularly evident in her early stories, has been the dilemmas of a girl coming of age and coming to terms with her family and the small town she grew up in. In recent work such as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) and Runaway (2004) she has shifted her focus to the travails of middle age, of women alone, and of the elderly. It is a mark of her style for characters to experience a revelation that sheds light on, and gives meaning to, an event.
Munro's prose reveals the ambiguities of life: "ironic and serious at the same time," "mottoes of godliness and honor and flaming bigotry," "special, useless knowledge," "tones of shrill and happy outrage," "the bad taste, the heartlessness, the joy of it." Her style places the fantastic next to the ordinary, with each undercutting the other in ways that simply and effortlessly evoke life. As Robert Thacker wrote:
Munro's writing creates... an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude – not of mimesis, so-called and... 'realism' – but rather the feeling of being itself... of just being a human being."
Many critics have asserted that Munro's stories often have the emotional and literary depth of novels. Some have asked whether Munro actually writes short stories or novels. Alex Keegan, writing in Eclectica, gave a simple answer: "Who cares? In most Munro stories there is as much as in many novels."
Research on Munro's work has been undertaken since the early 1970s, with the first PhD thesis published in 1972. The first book-length volume collecting the papers presented at the University of Waterloo first conference on her oeuvre was published in 1984, The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable. In 2003/2004, the journal Open Letter. Canadian quarterly review of writing and sources published 14 contributions on Munro's work, in Autumn 2010 the Journal of the Short Story in English (JSSE)/Les cahiers de la nouvelle dedicated a special issue to Munro, and in May 2012 an issue of the journal Narrative focussed on a single story by Munro, "Passion" (2004), with an introduction, a summary of the story, and five essays of analysis.
Creating new versions
Alice Munro publishes variant versions of her stories, sometimes within a short span of time. Her works "Save the Reaper" and "Passion" came out in two different versions in the same year, in 1998 and 2004 respectively. At the other end of the scale, two stories were republished in a variant version about 30 years later, "Home" (1974/2006) and "Wood" (1980/2009).
Ann Close and Lisa Dickler Awano reported in 2006 that Munro had not wanted to reread the galleys of Runaway (2004): ”No, because I’ll rewrite the stories.” In their symposium contribution An Appreciation of Alice Munro they say that of her story ”Powers”, for example, Munro did eight versions in all.
Awano writes that "Wood" is a good example of how Munro, being "a tireless self-editor", rewrites and revises a story, in this case returning to it for a second publication nearly thirty years later. In this case, Awano says, Munro revised characterizations, themes and perspectives, as well as rhythmic syllables, a conjunction or a punctuation mark. The characters change, too. Inferring from the perspective they take on things, they are middle-age in 1980, and in 2009 they are older. Awano perceives a heightened lyricism brought about not least by the poetic precision of the revision undertaken by the author. The 2009 version is made up of eight sections instead of three in 1980, and it has a new ending. Awano writes that Munro literally "refinishes" the first take on the story, with an ambiguity that is characteristic of Munro’s endings, and that the author re-imagines her stories throughout her work a variety of ways.
Several stories were re-published with considerable variation as to which content goes into which section. This can be seen, for example, in "Home", "The Progress of Love", "What Do You Want to Know For?", "The Children Stay", "Save the Reaper", "The Bear Came Over the Mountain", "Passion", "The View Fom Castle Rock", "Wenlock Edge", and "Deep-Holes".