To celebrate Alice Munro's 84th birthday today, I am posting the first few paragraphs of my new essay on Munro, which will appear in a book to be published in Canada soon. I will give you the publication information and date when I receive it.
Living in the Story:
Fictional Reality in the Stories of Alice Munro
Charles E. May
California State University, Long Beach
Throughout her distinguished career, Alice Munro has frequently been asked by reviewers and interviewers, "Why do you write short stories?" behind which, of course, always lurked the reproach, "Why don't you write novels?" Although she is no longer nagged about her narrative choice of the much maligned short story, reviewers and interviewers have shifted to a new tactic. Instead of chiding Munro for not writing novels, they now try to account for the success of her stories by claiming that they are like novels, not like short stories at all. How else to account for how great they are? Two or three such claims should be sufficient to underline the point:
"No one else quite constructs short stories that have the slow, rich emotional depth of novels."" (Lockerbie)
“You get, in fact, all the complexity and nuance of a novel, concentrated within several dozen pages.” (Springstubb)
"Each story reads like a novel; each is a vast canvas of complicated characters, tangled events and quietly turbulent revelations.” (Changnon)
Munro definitively answered the impertinent "Why do you write short stories?" question back in 1986, when she said that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but shrugged, “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel" (Rothstein). And now everyone, even, I dare say, her agent and her publishers, are glad she never did.
Given my long-time interest in the genre, I have always been very gratified by Alice Munro's suggestion that there is a "short-story way" of seeing reality and delighted with her persistent denial that her stories are like novels. She has said she is not drawn to writing novels because she doesn't see that people develop and arrive anywhere, but rather that they live in flashes, from time to time (Hancock)--an image that echoes Nadine Gordimer's famous argument that the short story as a form may be better equipped than the novel to capture whatever can be grasped of human reality where contact is like the" flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness" (180).
Munro has said, "I'm after the intensity of moments and layers of meaning that come from short stories. I want these moments to be bright and clear and also filled with density and mystery. I couldn’t get that from the novel form… I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come from in a novel, and I do in a short story" (Rothstein). On another occasion, she used a metaphor to describe this short-story excitement. “I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby" (Struthers).
Still, it seems that reviewers can find no other way to explain the complexity of Munro's works except by lumping them together with that "flabby," or, as Henry James once called it, "baggy," monster--the novel. Can we blame her then for not being able to resist a sly jab at short story naysayers in a fairly recent story in Too Much Happiness entitled “Fiction"--in which the central character buys a book written by a woman she has met briefly at a party and is disappointed to find out it is a only collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seemed to diminish the book’s importance, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside” (52).
Jonathan Franzen scolded critics and judges for the international neglect of Munro a few years ago by chiding, "The feeling in Stockholm is that too many Canadians and too many pure short-story writers have already been given the Nobel Prize." We are all happy now that Alice Munro is safely inside the Nobel gates of Literature—even if she does only write short stories. In one of her first interviews after winning the prize, she graciously said that the award was not only a wonderful thing for her, but a wonderful thing for the short story in general, and she hoped it would bring new readers to the form (Smith).
Despite critics'' insistence on the "novelistic" nature of Munro's stories, the qualities of her work that are so compelling are actually the very qualities that have always made great short stories so powerful: for example, the short story's transformation of seemingly trivial and unrelated material into a tight, thematically-significant pattern. Fellow short-story master, Deborah Eisenberg has said that one of the joys of Munro's writing is "the apparently casual narrative that turns out to have led inexorably to some inescapable juncture."
And another fellow short-story writer, Lorrie Moore, noted, "The particular and careful ways Munro's themes are laid into her narrative trajectories cause them to sneak up upon the reader" (41). As I have argued for many years, this has been one of the dominant characteristics of the short story form since Gogol, Poe, Hawthorne, Maupassant, Chekhov. Like the stories of her predecessors, Munro's fictions build toward a tightly unified thematic pattern, not the construction of a mirror in the roadway.