Alice Munro: The Writer in Miniature
Author: Victoria Brownworth
October 17, 2013
When the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced last week, I sent up a cheer and sent out a series of tweets, including, as did others, some with quotes from the winner, Alice Munro. Munro, queen of the short story, the woman Cynthia Ozick has called, “our Chekhov,” had won. The most common tweet quoting her work also summed up the body of it: “The constant happiness is curiosity.” And Munro is oh-so-curious about the human condition about which she writes so splendidly, provocatively and compellingly.
Munro had previously won the prestigious Man Booker Award in 2009 for lifetime achievement, which I’d also heralded. But the Nobel–that is the sine qua non of literary awards.
I was a little delirious that a short-story writer had won, and a female short-story writer at that. (Only 13 women have been awarded the Nobel Literature Prize. The Nobel Prize is notoriously sexist. Of all the prizes given since 1901, 807 have been awarded to men and 44 to women. Given that there is no award with so much money attached–more than $1million per award, this matters for many reasons.)
As fellow New Yorker writer Lorrie Moore noted about Munro after the win was announced, “The selection of the brilliant Alice Munro is a thrilling one, a triumph for the short-story writers everywhere who have held her work in awe from its beginning.”
Moore is correct: We do hold Munro’s work in awe. I am a life-long connoisseur of the short story as well as a purveyor of them. Munro is a short story writer; it is her only form–she doesn’t write novels, nor does she believe that short stories are somehow failed novel-writing.
Munro said of her own writing (her first collection was published when she was 37), “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel,” she told The New Yorker, for which she has written for decades, in 2012. “Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.”
It certainly has been so for her readers. Her themes of love and sex, desire and loss, the miseries of daily life–all pivot around her rural Ontario setting, the place she has always lived and worked.
Short stories are their own perfection and the best of hers are that: perfection. Not a confection, ever. But a savory amuse bouche. Or sometimes, a punch to the gut.
That was certainly how I would have described the short story of hers with a lesbian protagonist that appeared in The New Yorker in the June 27, 2011 issue. “Gravel” does what Munro likes to do best–begins with a story of a story, then moves back and forth in time from past to present.
“Gravel” is as compelling a story as any of Munro’s. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but the events that transpire in this story are life-altering for the characters and transform the life of the protagonist utterly. The language is descriptive, yet spare. Munro doesn’t go in for piling on adjectives, but nor is she stark like Raymond Carver. The story begins:
At the time, we were living beside a gravel pit….My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it. ‘We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,’ she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street—the husband—with the life she’d had before.
So much information in such a short space. Munro spins out details in one sentence that require so much more in other stories, and of course, in novels.
Because there is also this, about the lesbian narrator’s relationship:
“I have a partner, Ruthann, who is younger than I am but, I think, somewhat wiser. Or at least more optimistic about what she calls routing out my demons.”
This fulsome brevity of hers is why I teach Munro in my course on “Constructing and Deconstructing the Short Story.” Munro is the consummate craftsperson: she is, more than anyone since Anton Chekhov and John Cheever, the architect of the contemporary short story. We leave each story knowing her characters fully. In “Gravel,” we learn a lifetime about the lesbian protagonist, her partner, her childhood, her present, what makes her who she is. All, as ever, in a short, awesomely declarative and palpably moving narrative.
I first read Munro in college–I was assigned her collection, The Lives of Girls and Women, in one of my Women’s Studies courses. The marked-up paperback still travels back and forth with me each semester I teach the short story. I feel I know Munro, her characters, the keenly nuanced prose, like I’d written it myself. Her stories aren’t ungenerous; they are effulgent. They evolve in layer upon layer. They move back and forth in the narrative, non-linear, yet wholly accessible. Munro tells a story the way we all tell a story–going back and forth in time, because that is how life is lived.
In the weeks prior to the Nobel announcements rumors had been swirling that the winner was going to be Canadian, so my thoughts went to two of my favorite writers–both brilliant, both women. The inimitable Margaret Atwood, whose amazing tales of women’s lives have been overlaid in the past decade with her concern for the planet and what will become of us ecologically and sustainably, and Munro, that doyenne of the short, well-crafted tale.
Munro is often forgotten in the literary canon–she’s always just so comfortably there. Yet she is one of the true greats, on a par with other favorites of her genre–Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, William Trevor, Joyce Carol Oates and of course Franz Kafka and Chekhov. (Both those latter men were repeatedly denied the Nobel because Alfred Nobel’s will on the matter was read too literally. Nobel wanted idealism at the core of the works in consideration of the award; not much of that in Chekhov or Kafka…)
So why Munro? The terms of the Nobel specify that no details on the choosing be revealed until 50 years after the award has been given. So we–or at least I–shall never know who else was being considered this year. If Atwood, too, was up. Or Oates. Or Salman Rushdie, who’s been continually passed over as “too obvious.” Or…we can’t know. Maddening.
But I digress.
Munro, 82, had said in an interview earlier this year that she was giving up writing. Retiring from it. I wasn’t sure I believed her, despite how final and honest she sounded. Perhaps the Nobel will persuade her to carry on, because Munro never tires of exploring new ideas in her work, even if the core symmetry and resonant themes of her stories remain the same.
The Nobel Committee, in honoring her, stated that she was, indeed, “the master of the contemporary short story.”
And she is. Munro has published 14 collections of stories since 1968 when she released Dance of the Happy Shades which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (the Canadian version of the Pulitzer Prize). Her most recent collection was Dear Life, published in 2012. In 2006 her story 2001, “The Bear Came over the Mountain” was adapted for the screen by director Sarah Polley. The film starred Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. Polley and Christie were both nominated for Academy Awards.
Munro’s stories are life, in miniature. As with Chekhov, there is little action in her stories, yet they are filled with revelatory moments, as happens at the end of “Gravel,” but also at different point throughout the narrative.
In “Train,” Jackson is “a certain kind of man,” of whom women have nothing to fear. He can’t handle the life of being forced into marriage and so he becomes the farm-hand of Belle, a single woman whose father killed himself because of his incestuous feelings for her. (As noted, Munro’s stories have depth.)
We learn that Jackson has jumped off the train home from World War II, a train taking him home to marriage to a young woman. But he can’t face it, and so becomes Belle’s platonic caregiver, a job he can handle, whereas husband would have killed him.
How Munro handles the Jackson’s sexual orientation is tender, if heartbreaking. Some will liken the story to Annie Prouxl’s “Brokeback Mountain,” but it’s a far subtler story and as such, almost unbearable to read. Gay readers will be reminded of the telephone scene in A Single Man, it’s at that level of human suffering.
Munro chooses the era before Stonewall, when there were just enough out gay men around and about to make it maddening for all those who were still forced to be closeted to detail what life was like in semi-rural Ontario 65 years ago. It’s a tale so tragic, it’s hard to imagine how those gay men and lesbians who came before us lived such sadly muted, claustrophobic lives. Munro’s tale evokes that interior tragedy with altogether too much clarity.
When the Nobel was announced, there was no furor about Munro’s win like there was for Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter or Orhan Pamuk. No one complained of a politicization of the award as had been done with those authors, although it’s difficult to imagine that each in his or her own way wasn’t worthy of the award. But Munro is a writer’s writer–widely respected and beloved for the work that seems to have always been there, detailing these lives in miniature, these scenes from so many different emotional and visceral vantage points, nearly all set in that same physical and emotional terrain of rural Ontario.
Yet other writers situate Munro in the classic literary canon for their interiority, their breadth, their surprising heft. She’s re-done structure altogether, opening the door for other short story writers to fiddle with the form in ways that have only served to make it sharper, deeper, more resonant.
She did that. Munro.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Middlesex,” Jeffrey Eugenides, was laudatory when the win was announced. “People talk about Munro being a ‘master of the short-story form,’” he told the Washington Post. “But she didn’t master the form so much as re-create it. Her traditional-seeming stories are anything but. She’ll shift multiple points of view or time schemes–hair-raisingly complicated stuff–not to show off formally, but to find a means of packing her stories with maximum density. She’s the most savage writer I’ve ever read, also the most tender, the most honest, the most perceptive. This is one of those years where no one can complain about the Nobel Committee’s choice. I’m so incredibly happy that she won.”
Even the ever-insufferable Jonathan Franzen, self-proclaimed greatest living American novelist, who had caused Salman Rushdie to slam him on Twitter last month when Franzen took social media and its mavens to task in The Guardian, has noted of Munro, “Reading Munro puts me in a state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”
Bret Easton Ellis, who’s become almost a caricature out of one of his own send-ups of pop culture, seemed to be the only writer miffed by the choice of Munro.
Never one to mince words about how much disdain he feels for women writers, Ellis took to Twitter as so many of us did when Munro won. (I had read lovely tweets from writers who had surely hoped it would be them this year, finally, like Rushdie, Oates and Atwood.)
But for Ellis it was to rip the Munro and the Nobel. “Munro is so completely overrated,” Ellis wrote. “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 Daily Beast reported this story, opening with, “Bret Easton Ellis, who has not won a Nobel Prize…”)
Outrage over Ellis’s comments were such that he was forced to back-pedal, noting this week, that “the sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.”
Indeed. Because Munro’s writing is a revelatory gift.
The breadth of writers admiring of Munro really speaks to the Nobel Committee’s choice of her. One never much thinks about who other writers are reading, but apparently while Ellis has been fawning over NBC’s “The Voice,” nearly everyone else has been reading Munro.
Yet Munro’s response to the award was so lovely, it just added to the joy of seeing her join the panoply of laureates. “It just seems impossible,” she said. “It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it. It’s more than I can say.”
Munro also stood for her short story metier: “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”
The exquisite nature of Munro’s stories, the intricacies and nuances, and as Eugenides noted, her often savage depictions of relationships, as is evinced in both “Gravel” and “Train,” are so worthy of reading, exploring, pondering. It is to be hoped that the attention brought by the Nobel will do for her work what it did for Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing–revive them for readers who had set them aside as work to be read at some point in some distant future along with other “classics.”
Ellis is correct that the Nobel, complicated as it might be, is solidifying. Munro has been cast as a classicist now. One can read “Gravel” online at The New Yorker website. It’s as breathtaking a story as you will read of hers, but it is only one of hundreds. Which means there is so much more to look forward to.
Photo via NobelPrize.org