Monday, June 2, 2014

The 2014 Canadian Literature Symposium on Alice Munro

You may be wondering why after rapid-fire postings at the beginning of May (Short-Story Month, according to some bloggers), I once again disappeared for a few weeks.

The reason being:

After returning from the Canadian Literature Symposium on Alice Munro at the University of Ottawa campus, my wife and I rushed down to Tucson, Arizona for my younger daughter's being hooded for a Ph.D. degree in English, and two-weeks of helping her pack up her house for a move back to Southern California, where her husband has landed a full-time job at Saddleback College teaching math.  No job yet for my daughter, for literature is not in such demand as math.  Go figure!

A few words about the Ottawa conference, where I had the honor of delivering one of the keynote addresses on Alice Munro: 

The conference was held over two and a half days at the University of Ottawa campus, where the two organizers of the  Symposium, Gerald Lynch and Janice Fiamengo, make their academic home.  It was attended by sixty or so academic scholars, critics, writers, and editors familiar with Munro's work over the years,

Among the highlights was the other keynote speaker, Robert Thacker of St. Lawrence University in New York state, author of the authoritative biography Alice Munro:  Writing Her Lives.  Bob Thacker knows more about Munro and her work than anyone.  His presentation, focusing on the arc of her work from the story "Walker Brothers Cowboy" to her final collection Dear Life, regaled the audience with information and insights that only Bob Thacker would know.  He was consulted many times during the weekend as a dynamic resource for all things Munro.

Bob was invited because he is the expert on Alice Munro.  I was invited because I know a bit about the short story, and, as I suggested to the audience, when you talk about Alice Munro, inevitably you talk about the short story—which I did.

Among the many interesting and provocative papers presented during the weekend, another high point for me was a panel on the career of Munro, featuring Virginia Barber, Munro's long time agent and friend; Ann Close, a senior editor at Alfred Knopf Publishing; Douglas Gibson, another long-time Munro friend and her Canadian editor; and Daniel Menaker, one of the editors at The New Yorker for many years when Munro was publishing there. 

Although these four provided some interesting factual information about Munro's career, including contracts and sales, the most engaging part of the panel was hearing from the four people who were the most important in helping Munro establish her career.  Barber said she and Close were working on preparing a second Selected Stories of Munro's work.  Barber said that Munro's final collection  Dear Life got a big boost after the Nobel Prize award, selling 400,000 copies and being licensed in forty different countries.  Ann Close added that the new uniform  paperback series put out by Vintage after the Nobel win has sold over 400,000 copies, and Dear Life has sold an additional 200,000 copies in paperback. I was grateful that four such important people, people who affectionately call Munro "Alice," were willing to attend and share personal anecdotes about their relationship with her.

Some other observations and reactions to the presentations: The  opening panel of "Writers' Appreciations" featured Steven Heighton of Kingston, Ontario; Robert McGill of U. of Toronto, Lisa Moore of St. John's NL, and Aritha Van Herk of U. of Calgary.  I particularly liked Heighton's description of Munro's stories as being "holographic," that is, not linear and not flatly two-dimensional, but rather viewable from multiple in-depth angles simultaneously—metonymic in the sense that the whole was embedded in each part.

Other presenters discussed the stories Munro wrote when she was a student at U. of Western Ontario; her use of multiple points of view; The View from Castle Rock as a story cycle; the theme of invasion; teaching Munro's stories in Slovenia; the use of letters in her stories,; and the use of memorized poems.  The latter was particularly interesting to the audience, for it evoked issues of recitation as a means of linking generations, as well as the significance of embedding rhythms in the mind.  One of the final presentations was a provocative piece by well-known Munro expert Magdalene Redekop of U. of Toronto, about Munro's stories "Lichen," in which Munro is seen as the prototypical storyteller—Scherazade.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the presentations of two professors from the U. of Toronto who are well-known for their light-hearted approach to the serious business of studying and teaching great literature—Dennis Duffy and Tim Struthers.  Dennis did a lively presentation on Munro's story "Too Much Happiness," and Tim did what he called a tribute to "the only voice" of Alice Munro, ending with a memorable quote from the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.

It was a pleasurable conference, with no rancor, no posturing, no academic egos—just genuine love for the work of a Canadian—indeed an international—treasure, who if there is any justice in the world, should singlehandedly rescue the short story from its second-class status.


Anonymous said...


You mention Munro's final collection 'Real Life' a couple of times. I think you mean 'Dear Life'?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for catching that typo. I made the correction.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr May,

I'm glad to have found your blog because I was considering starting reading some good short stories. In fact, that's how I found your site, looking for lists of greatest short stories (not necessarily American though at least translated to English).

I have a request. Having read so many stories, will you be able to make a post about what makes a story...a story? Does it have to have a conflict, a climax, must there always be change, insight, surprise, emotions, connection with the reader? Must it make sense?

Story is the telling of a sequence of events. For instance:

I felt like looking up list of stories to read. I looked them up online. I found a blog. I made a post in the blog. The End.

I have read a few stories where, for the lack of better word, I felt manipulated. I experienced the equivalent of a movie's sudden closeups and MTV style editing. Surprise after surprise, important information hidden till the end, a hand reaches out and grabs your heart just to make sure you are emotionally invested.

Of course there could also be stories where nothing important happens and you just don't care about the characters. But why are you reading? Because it captures life. I don't know if you read this post or bother answering me, so this right here...that's life! I don't have to learn from you, you don't have to be changed by this post. In fact, one of us could be dead in a week, right before any kind of realization or insight could occur. And it could be a very trivial thing too, like falling in a hole somewhere. No, that's too symbolic, let's say slipping in a grocery store and dying. That's a story, is it not, a sequence of events?

Charles E. May said...

I would rather speak to you by name than by "anonymous," but in my opinion, "anonymous," what marks the difference between a "story" and a mere account of a series of events is that a story reflects someone's attempt--the narrator, a central character, the author, the reader--to create, perceive, understand some "significance" or "meaning" in that series of events.

What marks the difference between a great story and a not-so-great story, in my opinion is the universality of that significance or meaning, the perceptive way the author apprehends and humanizes that universality, the author's careful use of language to explore that significance, the rhythm of reality the story evokes--all reflected by the honesty of the author in trying to capture that reality.

Beyond these expectations a reader has the right with which to engage with a story, a story can be any damn thing the writer wants it to be and reader understands it to be--assuming, of course, that both writer and reader are intelligent, honest, perceptive, sensitive to language, and empathetic to other human beings in the world.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your answer Dr. May. Since you put particular emphasis on me not identifying myself, I decided to post and say that my name is Ali. I hit the submit button too early last time and did not get to add my name, nor check the spelling and grammar. But rest assured, I do have a name.

My best.