Thursday, January 12, 2012

Popular Plotted vs. Literary Thematic Stories: Margaret Atwood vs. Alice Munro—Part I

One of the most troublesome problems I face in trying to come up with meaningful suggestions about reading short stories is the question of whether a story can be effectively read only once or whether it must be read more than once.

It is not as simple as it first appears, for the question seems to depend on the following issue:

Lets say, you pick up a copy of The New Yorker or Harpers from the bedside table at night and read a story. If the story seems immediately clear and “accessible” (to use an irritating word), it may be because it is a simple plot-based story. However, if you are puzzled or dissatisfied after only one reading, it may be because the story is structured according to themes that do not become connected until, having read the entire story, you begin again reading for meaning rather than for “what happens next.”

These issues raise the perennial problem of “accessible” vs. “literary,” suggesting the related problem of “dumbing down” vs. “elitism.” When the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced back in October, 2011, the chair of the judging panel, Stella Rimington, raised a little hell when she noted that the panel was looking for “enjoyable books” and said the judges thought the shortlist were all “readable books.”

(A side note here: I have just finished reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker and will post a blog on it’s “accessibility” next week.)

Among the various reactions Remington’s judgment aroused, the one that seemed to attract the most attention was the response by Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian, who reminded readers that an “entertaining read” was not necessarily “literature,” for which she said there is a simple test: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and feel?”

Winterson argues that the language of fiction is “not simply a means of telling a story; it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power—forget it.” However, the problem, said Winterson, is that powerful language can be daunting; for example,” reading Joyce is hard work and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read.”

Winterson insists that the controversy is not about “dumbing down,” but rather a misunderstanding about the purpose of literature. “We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologise for the arts in a way that we never do for science.”

The old “accessibility” issue was raised again in November, 2011 by poet John Ashbery in his acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Noting that he was delighted to receive the award since to many people, “what I write makes no sense.” Ashbery mused, to knowing laughter from the audience, that many think his poetry apparently lacks “accessibility,” which he suggested seems to be a “relatively recent requirement” for literature. Ashbery said that when he first discovered modern poetry many years ago he was delighted by its “difficulty.” Noting that when as a student he was assigned Henry James’s Wings of a Dove, he exclaimed to himself, “Well, this is really difficult.” Ashbury laments that nowadays difficulty is “out” and accessibility is “in.” He further argues that reading literature is justifiably difficult because “when we read we are temporarily giving ourselves to something that may change us.”

I want to talk about this issue, focusing on two stories that appeared in the last few months in The New Yorker: Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” in the Nov. 28, 2011 issue, and Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” in the Dec. 19/26 issue.

I read Munro’s story when it first appeared in my online version of The New Yorker and then read it again when the hard copy of the magazine arrived. Googling around the blog world for others who read Alice Munro, I noted that most of those readers summarize the plot of the story and conclude that it does not add up to anything significant.

And I agree, on a first reading of the story, it seems relatively straightforward and inconsequential, not really very “story like.” However, that judgment may be based on a single reading of the story for plot and character, rather than a second or third readings for thematic complexity.

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe’s insisted that a short story differs from the novel by being organized spatially rather than temporally, the short story has often been misread by readers who read it for plot and character the way they read a novel rather than for language and theme, the way a short story primarily communicates.

A single reading of “Leaving Maverley” for plot and character reveals little of note. Basically, it is about a policeman in a small Ontario town whose wife Isabel has a disabling heart problem. The policeman becomes acquainted with a young woman who later runs off with the town minister’s son, with whom she has two children. When the young woman has an affair with the new minister in town, she loses her children in a divorce. The policeman’s wife falls into a coma that lasts four years. At the end of the story, he happens to run into the young woman again in the hospital just before his wife dies. That’s “what happens” in the story. It does not seem like a story, and it does not seem to mean anything.

As usual in a Munro work, the story covers a long period of time and focuses on several characters—the kind of time span ad character configuration that makes many reviewers call her stories “novelistic.” However, if we read “Leaving Maverley” as a short story rather than as a novel—that is, if we read it more than once—as a language-based thematic structure rather than for plot and character configuration—we may find that it is more complex than we first assume.

Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” is about a woman named Verna in her sixties who, while on an Arctic cruise, recognizes someone on board as the seventeen-year-old boy who got her pregnant when she was fourteen and then dumped her. The back-story is that Verna has become so embittered against men that she has become something of a “merry widow,” who has gone through four husbands, usually older than herself and well-to-do. Although each died of “natural causes,” she assisted by encouraging bad eating habits, helping them overdose, taking advantage of Viagra’s danger to those with heart problems, etc. She seems never to have been in love and does not like sex, although she knows how to use it. The man, named Bob, who does not recognize her, tries to seduce her, while she plots to kill him—which she does, with a fossil stone she finds on a trip to shore, leaving his body there for the ravens. She conceals the fact that Bob is missing by frequently going into his cabin and messing up his towels and bed. When the cruise is over and Bob does not show up to pay his bill, it is assumed he fell overboard on the final night. Verna is safe and at peace.

I think you will agree that, based on plot summary, Atwood’s story seems more like a “story” than Munro’s, which seems more like the synopsis of a novel. And that’s because, of course, that “Stone Mattress” is a plot; it is even based on a “plot”—Verna’s plot to seek revenge on the man who “done her wrong.” What is the story about? Well, just that—its plot: revenge, poetic justice, selfish predator males, clever plotting females, etc.

And, of course, the primary clever plotting female here is Margaret Atwood. I have to admit I was hooked from the first sentence: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” The language of the story is simple and transparent—the sentences serving the purpose of advancing the plot and making us empathize with Verna so that we feel a sense of satisfaction at the end, closing the magazine with a smile of appreciation for the cleverness of Verna’s plot and, of course, Atwood’s.

Although this is a popular plot story, not a literary thematic story, Atwood cannot resist a little social commentary and a little playing around with metaphor. In the fifties (we know it is the fifties because Atwood helpfully tells us that at the dance Bob Takes Verna to they dance to “Rock Around the Clock,” “Hearts Made of Stone,” and “The Great Pretender”—all titles that Atwood must have been pleased to come up with since they all echo Bob and the title of the story), when a girl got pregnant illegitimately, as Atwood reminds us, no “decent man” would ever want to marry her. Also in the fifties, as Atwood notes, there was no name for what happened to Verna—no “date rape” since “rape was what occurred when some maniac jumped on you out of a bush.” So, for the sake of the story and its social significance, we are to believe that Bob has turned Verna into a murderer and deserves whatever he gets.

Atwood gets in the “literary stuff” in a couple of ways: Her third husband was a “serial quotation freak” who especially likes to quote from the Romantic and Victorian poets, which allows Atwood to drop in relevant quotations now and again, ending the story by recalling her husband, after his Viagra sessions, annoyingly quoting “Calm of mind all passion spent.” Verna muses, “Those Victorians always couple sex with death” and wonders if the line is from Keats or Tennyson. It little matters that it is neither, but rather from Milton’s Sampson Agonistes, for what Atwood wants to suggest is that Verna’s act of revenge leaves her with “passion spent,” much as the sex act might.

The other little “literary” device Atwood playfully uses here is the ironic significance of Verna’s name and the title of the story. For each of her husbands she has provided a learned explanation for her name—from the Latin word for spring, with its promise of phallic renewal; from the 18th century Scottish poet, James Thompson’s line about vernal breezes, and from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” “a highly sexual ballet that ended with torture and human sacrifice.”

The title of the story comes from the word “stromatolite,” the world’s earliest fossil, which comes from the Greek word “stroma,” meaning mattress, coupled with the root word for “stone.” This is the kind of fossil that Verna finds on shore and uses to beat Bob’s brains out. And yes, there is, of course, a clever reference here to that old fossil Bob, to the memory of "bad boy Bob" preserved or fossilized in the mind of Verna, to the poetic justice of leaving Bob’s body on a “stone bed” (since Bob’s crime has turned Verna and her bed to stone) in the Arctic to become still another fossil once the ravens have picked him clean.

All very clever, all very easy, all a lot of fun, but meaning what? Nothing, of course, except the cheap thrill of identifying with Verna’s clever search for revenge. The little bit of social commentary and the little bit of literary allusion and metaphor are perhaps meant to make us think we are reading something with social substance and artistic importance, rather than a bit of pop fluff. I read the story twice, but discovered nothing that was not obvious from the first reading. I don’t plan to read it again, although I admit the first reading whiled away the time one night before sleep.

Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” is another story, as it were. I will discuss it next week, along with her recent story in the winter issue of Narrative, entitled “To Reach Japan.”


Anonymous said...

What a great post to find in my inbox this morning - thank you. I was quite surprised by the Atwood story and after I’d finished it wondered what you might say about it - so I’m pleased to read your thoughts.

A very minor point, but I would question your synopsis of Atwood’s story. (i) Rather than a “boy who got her pregnant . . . and then dumped her” my reading was that the boy Bob had raped Vera (which, to my mind is very different. Not that I’m arguing this improves the story or makes Vera’s revenge by murder ‘OK.’) It was a single night of non-consensual sex and there was no indication that he was ever told about her pregnancy or his child. (ii) You write she ‘conceals’ and ‘when the cruise is over . . . it is assumed.’ The story, as I read it, ended on the day of the murder - Vera considers all she will have to do over the remaining days but the concealing is an as yet uncompleted plan for the future, and she may not escape without detection (though it seems most likely she will.)

I look forward to Part II.

Joe Melia said...

Fascinating post, Charles. Have you ever read John Carey's book 'What Good are the Arts?'? Much of the book is an absorbing, stimulating examination of “accessible” vs. “literary”, “dumbing down” vs. “elitism.”. He looks at various art forms but concentrates on literature as that's his field.

Hayley N. Jones said...

Very thought-provoking post. In my opinion, the best stories (of any type, including novels) are those which reveal more layers as they are re-read.

I think the accessiblity debate ignores the pleasures of reading more challenging literature. I couldn't read more than a few pages at a time of The Waves, for example, but found it very rewarding and enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Now, I'm really looking forward to Part II. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What I read in "Stone Mattress" was a demand to consider the superficiality with which we make judgments. It's easy for us to judge Verna as a femme fatale with a taste for vengeance and murder, just as her mother judged her a slut after she was raped. It's also easy to judge the Atwood story based on its (rather silly) true-crime sort of plot -- and on the piles and piles of...would you call them cliches, or aphorisms? -- those easy, slutty phrases that would be like bloody meat for the wolves in a fiction workshop. The choice of both plot and cliche had to be deliberate; I kept feeling as though Atwood were poking me in the eye with them. Daring me to judge the merit of the story on its surface superficiality alone.

I guess at heart I'm still just a child who gets a huge dopamine rush, upon opening a book or a magazine, because I think the author is going to tell me a story. I may be a junkie for unliterary crack. I don't pretend to know what constitutes "social substance" or "artistic importance" in a short story - and I'm not sure that I'd want to read anything by a writer who was so self-important that they'd try to tell me something socially substantive or artistically important anyway! (Ever read any Chernyshevsky? I rest my case.) I enjoyed the idea that Margaret Atwood was offering me, her unknown reader, a kind of game in words to play for an hour or so. And that she "told me a story" while we were playing, too. She makes a NICE babysitter.

I look forward to reading Part II of this post, because I really don't enjoy the kind of stories that offer me only artifacts of "language-based thematic structure," and I keep hoping to find a reason to start! Haven't yet read "Leaving Maverley" - that issue of New Yorker arrived when my mother was visiting, & her visits are sort of like living in a Munro story - but will either dig it out or read the story on line.

Alex Keegan said...

Enjoyed the article (spotted it via Facebook, I think.)

I confess I like some story in there, but prefer it when it turns out the story is a side issue or distraction.

I am not a good (academic) hard-working reader and I need a fix "first-pass" and then to realise "hang-on a minute..." and think something is still alight from the story I thought has burned itself out.

I have never got on much with Attwood but like to read Alice Munro and wrote a short essay on her for my MA (on slate, before pens and stuff).. but saying that I don't go LOOKING FOR Alice. What does that mean, that I'm lazy?


Anonymous said...

Well, I spent 4 days and about 3,000 words of blog space trying to figure out what was going on in "Leaving Maverley." Can't wait to see the "real" answer now!

Anonymous said...

If you accept the
notion put forth by writer
Mary Allen (I caught her
2008 podcast when she
spoke at the Iowa Writers'
Workshop) that writing is
a spiritual act then you
might agree that in
thinking of the "literary
short story" we are
speaking of story that
goes below the surface of
It's fair to
say that Alice Munro's
work aspires to art.
(Which is not to say that
Margaret Atwood's story
"Stone Pillow" does not.)
From what I read in
various blogs and in other
works, writers are often
squeamish about the word
To quote Flannery O'Connor
(I read where one blogger
called her Saint Flannery
and I'm inclined to
agree): "Art never
responds to the wish to
make it democratic; it is
not for everybody; it is
only for those who are
willing to undergo the
effort to understand it."
In a classic "how to" book
on writing I found this
sentence:" must
relate your story material
to reality in such a
manner as to help give
life meaning to your
readers, by reaffirming
their wishful thinking and
It's that last phrase that
got to me: "reaffirming
wishful thinking."
I don't think that's what writers want to do.
By the way, love your

Charles E. May said...

Thanks much to anonymous for his/her helpful remarks. I suspect that many contemporary writers shy away from the word "art" because it suggests elitism. But as for me, I too agree with writers like Munro and Flannery O'Connor, who take their work seriously and who, as Mary Allen says, see what they do as being deeply spiritual.

Unknown said...

Great to see such a detailed analyses and further discussion. To put plainly, the literary sensibilities of Atwood cannot be correlated to anyone else's. On the other hand, she has a unique identity in the literary canon of the western world. Read insightful analyses on Atwood at Custom Essay Writing Service who employs expert writers.