Sunday, October 24, 2010

One More Word (I think) on Munro's "Corrie"

Well, my friends. Thank you so much for the invigorating discussion about Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” However, I have nothing new to add to what I have said in defense of Ms. Munro's tactic in the story. I think she supports the secrecy theme with the free indirect point of view very nicely indeed. I hope some others will weigh in on this little debate. However, I leave it, at least for the time being, with this little quote I have penciled in on a 3x5 card (Raymond Carver used to do this; remember him?) from a piece by Joyce Cary (remember him?) in the New York Times Book Review way back in 1950: (I was only nine at the time, but I was precocious.)

"Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’”

I used the quote as the heading for a piece I did several years ago on Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” rebutting one critic’s claim that Hemingway had screwed up the dialogue designation in the story, thus creating reader confusion. As a result, Scribner’s actually changed the text in the next edition of Hemingway’s Collected Stories. I was outraged; I knew Hemingway was too damned careful to muck the story up and tried hard to show that he had a sound thematic reason for creating what that critic thought was a mistake. The last time I checked, Scribner’s had changed it back to the original. So it goes!

I always tried to convince my students that if they read a story and thought it was screwed up or just plan screwy, they should assume first of all that it was their fault and not the fault of the writer. I always assume, and tried to convince them to assume, that the writer knew what he or she was doing. However, if they read it several times and really gave themselves over to the work and still couldn’t come to terms with it, then, I was happy to listen to arguments. I have been happy to listen to arguments by Ed and Kseniya about “Corrie,” but I have read it again and again, and I still believe Ms. Munro has got it right here. I am not saying I can’t be convinced that Munro cheated (Heavens!) or that she did not know how to pull it off (Lord a’mercy!), just that at this point, my faith in her unerring ability at writing short stories has not been shaken. Keep those cards and letters coming!

In the meantime, serendipitously, I have been reading David Means’ new collection The Spot, which contains a story entitled “Reading Chekhov,” which is a version of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog,” the greatest adultery story in Christendom, in my opinion. So I went back and read Chekhov's “Lady with the Pet Dog” again and was, as the young’uns like to say, “blown away.” I then looked up Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Lady with the Pet Dog,” and was so underwhelmed that I dozed off twice.

So, since with Munro, we have been talking about adultery (we have been talking about adultery, haven’t we?), I thought I would post a blog comparing the Means with the Munro with the Chekhov with the Oates. I love to bad mouth Oates about as much as I love to praise David Means.

Oh, by the way, I just got the new edition of Best American Short Stories, 2010 and am reading it dutifully. I will have a post on my progress in a couple of weeks.

And there is a new David Means story in the recent issue of the New Yorker. I will comment on it in the next week also.

I appreciate my readers and look forward to more lively responses to my humble remarks.


Tim said...

Charles, I'm pleased to have come across this discussion. "Corrie" is a wonderful short story, and a nice departure from most of the stories the New Yorker published over the summer.

Whether or not the letter exists doesn't matter to me. At first read, I assumed it existed, and that at some point the blackmail fell off from Sadie, and Howard took over.

That reading leaves some holes, but overall it works. The reader is still shocked upon discovering Howard's betrayal, and then doubly so when Corrie makes her decision.

After reading your posts, and reviewing the story again, it makes more sense for Howard to have lied about the whole thing. Sadie never blackmailed them. The affair is shrouded in secrecy, and Corrie is naive in a way.

Reading the story that way, it works even better.

Jay said...

I'm also happy to have found this discussion on the new Alice Munro story. I'll have to read the story a second (or third) time in order to parse all the different arguments, but I will say that, for now, I feel Munro comes by her "surprise" ending pretty honestly. While I can understand the formal reservations others have, I didn't personally feel trifled with, as a reader, and that's usually my initial litmus test for these kinds of stories. (That could change, though.)

I will say that the ending of "Corrie" did remind me of the ending of another story of hers called "Before the Change" (which is the collection, THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN). The dichotomy between the emotional life and the practical life seems to be an important Munro motif.

Charles E. May said...

Amen to that, Tim. The "20 under 40" series was a disappointment to me, mainly because most were excerpts from novels.

Thanks for you comment about the Munro story. And I agree, Corrie is naive.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Jay. I like your litmus test about being "trifled with." That seems just the right phrase.

I remember the "Before the Change." Although the story, like many other Munro fictions, focuses on some ambiguous secret, its emphasis on the abortion issue made it more polemical and less mysterious for me than the best of Munro's short fictions. In my opinion, the short story form cannot easily bear the weight of polemical rhetoric and social lesson without seeming awkwardly and obviously rigged.

Lee said...

I've read the David Means story three times already, will go back to it at least another time, and have ordered The Spot on the strength of it alone. Alone the last paragraph in Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 ought to be required reading for every writer, decoding how it works so perfectly! I'm looking forward to next week's comments.

楊鳳苓 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Anton said...

Well, I'm so glad I found this blog. Most informative. I'm joining the discussion a bit late but I am now in the throes of reading Dear Life. I read Corrie last night in bed, discovered the blog this morning and now realise she, AM, changed the name of one character, to Sadie, and changed the ending, she informed Howard about Lilliane/Sadie's death. Any comments anyone! Also, and please be patient, I read James Wood's book and various other comments (David Lodge,...) about free indirect style but find the concept as slippery as an eel. Could someone kindly help me nail the notion for ever please?

Mr May, do you have or could you supply a kind of checklist for reading short stories. I have made my own little list (Length of chapters, paragraphs, sentences, metaphor, simile
Plot: stranger arriving/hero going out into the wide world
Summary/scene or Telling/showing
Motifs: good cop/bad cop, parallelisms, contrasts) but I always end up throwing caution to the wind and become engrossed in the story. Do you have any tips on this subject you could kindly share with a novice "artful reader" please?

Charles E. May said...

Anton, thanks very much for your response. I am pleased that you have found my blog also. I do value good readers. You might be interested in my new post on "Corrie," which comments briefly on the three different endings Munro has written to that story.

I do not have a checklist for reading stories, but am working on a book on "how to read short stories" or something like that.

Free indirect discourse generally refers to a point of view in which the author speaks in his own voice but takes on the perspective of the character. A common example is James Joyce's story "Clay," in which the point of view seems to be both that of Joyce and of Maria.