Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro's Devotion to the Short Story

In honor of Alice Munro's wonderful win of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I post the following excerpt from the final chapter of my new book, "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies.

Although in the last forty years, the short story has been characterized first by experimentation and then by attenuation, Alice Munro has continued to go her own way, so confident of the nature of the short story and her control of the form that she needs to observe no trends nor imitate no precursors. Certainly she does not write in a vacuum, clearly aware of those short-story masters who have preceded her--Chekhov, Turgenev, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver--but Munro has found her own unique rhythm and controls it consummately.

There is always something mysterious and unspeakable in Munro's stories, even though there is never the cryptic compression of much late twentieth century short fiction. In an almost novelistic fashion, as if she had all the time in the world, Munro lovingly lingers on her characters and seldom misses the opportunity to register an arresting image. But a Munro story is deceptive; it lulls the reader into a false sense of security in which time seems to comfortably stretch out like everyday reality, only to suddenly turn and tighten so intensely that the reader is left breathless.

Book publishers usually consider short stories the work of the beginner—M.F.A. finger-exercises they reluctantly agree to publish only if they can promise on the flyleaf that the writer is “currently working on a novel.” This commercial capitulation to the fact that most readers prefer novels to short stories--along with the assumption that a big work of fiction is more important than a collection of small ones--is so powerful and pervasive that few writers are able to resist it. That Alice Munro, who has been able to resist it for so many collections of short stories, has become one of the most highly praised writers of the last half of the twentieth century should therefore go a long way toward redeeming the neglected short form. When her one novel, Lives of Girls and Women was called “only a collection of short stories,” she wasn’t bothered, saying she didn’t feel that a novel was any step up from a short story. To her credit, she has never wavered from that judgment.

With remarkable unanimity, reviewers, critics, and fellow authors agree that Alice Munro is the best short-story writer in the world today, often justifying this assessment by arguing that the numerous characters and multiplicity of events in her stories make them somehow novelistic. However, Munro has always insisted that she does not write as a novelist does, that when she is writing a short story she gets a kind of tension she needs, like pulling on a rope attached to some definite place, whereas with a novel, everything goes “flabby.” Characters and events don’t really matter in her stories, she says, for they are subordinated to an overall “climate” or “mood.” In Munro’s best work, the hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere and tone, is always about something more enigmatic and unspeakable than the story generated by characters and what happens next. Her greatest stories simply do not communicate as novels do.

Alice Munro has probably been asked “Why do you write short stories?” so many times that she is tired of hearing it, especially since lurking behind the question is the corollary rebuke, “Why don’t you write novels?” The most common reason she has given, the one that Raymond Carver once related, is the practical one of spousal and parental responsibility. Carver liked to tell the story of being in a Laundromat in Iowa City waiting for a dryer and being close to frustrating tears as he realized that the greatest influence on his career was that he had two children and would always find himself in a position of “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction” (Call if You Need Me 98). In a 1986 interview, after the publication of Progress of Love, Munro replied to this increasingly impertinent question: “I never intended to be a short-story writer. I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else—I had three children” (Rothstein).

Certainly, domestic duties may help explain why authors like Carver and Munro—two of the greatest short-story writers in the latter half of the twentieth century—initially wrote pieces of fiction that they could complete in stolen blocks of time. But it does not explain why they continued to write short stories when they had more time and when their publishers kept hounding them for a novel.

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives, such as write a novel, is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century: Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Alice Munro. Munro said back in 1986 that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but “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).

The demand of household chores, although certainly not a trivial reason for choosing to write short stories, does not have enough explanatory power to satisfy the critic. On the other hand, Munro’s notion that there is “a short-story way” of seeing reality is a genre issue with significant critical implications. And perhaps one way to try to understand some of the significant characteristics of the short story form is to explore the beliefs and practices of one writer who has always seen her material in “a short story way.”

Munro once said, “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come 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.” Munro says she doesn’t seem to be able to write in any other way. “I guess that’s why I don’t write a novel. God knows I still keep trying. But there always comes a point where everything seems to be getting really flat. You don’t feel the tension…I don’t feel this pulling on the rope to get to the other side that I have to feel.” Munro added, “People have suggested this is because I want to be able to manage everything and that I fear loss of control…. I have to agree that I fear loss of control. But I don’t think it’s anything as simple as that” (Struthers 14-15).

Munro explained that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.”  She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest (“What is Real” 224).

Munro used the term “feeling” again when Geoff Hancock asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story” (81). Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood” (Hancock 81). When Hancock asked Munro about meaning and intent in her stories, she said, “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along” (84). When Hancock says he thinks she gives “voice to our secret selves,” she agrees emphatically, “That’s absolutely what I think a short story can do” (76).

I will try to illustrate in what follows that the aspects of Munro’s “specific kind of creative activity”—“tension,” “control,” “mood,” “emotion,” “mystery,” “secret self,” and the refusal to explain—underlie the complexity of her short stories in particular and the short story in general. What I wish to argue is that the complexity of Alice Munro’s short stories is not the result of the mere multiplicity of characters and the addition of a social, ideological, or historical context, but rather the result of seeing the world in a uniquely “short story way.”

As I have argued earlier in this book, the short story’s “way of seeing” is like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way, for it means not distinguishing objective characters, but rather “physiognomic characters.” When Munro says she is primarily interested in “emotion,” she echoes Cassirer when he says that within mythical perception “Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere” (Essay on Man 77). In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.”

Rather than plot or ideology, what unifies the short story is an atmosphere, a certain tone of significance. As Alberto Moravia has noted, when Chekhov tried his hand at a novel he was less gifted and convincing than he was with the short story. If you look at Chekhov’s long stories, says Moravia, you feel a lack of something that makes a novel, even a bad novel, a novel, for in them Chekhov dilutes his “concentrated lyrical feeling with superfluous plots lacking intrinsic necessity.” The very qualities that make him a great short story writer become defects when Chekhov tackles a novel. Characters in short stories are the product of “lyrical intuitions,” says Moravia; short stories get their “complexity from life and not from the orchestration of some kind of ideology” (150). The short story focuses on an experience under the influence of a particular mood, or, as Munro would say “emotion,” and therefore depends more on tone than on plot as a principle of unity.
The secret of Alice Munro’s short stories is that she is able to suggest universal, unspoken human desires--preferring meaningful fantasy to the insignificant actual, aesthetic disengagement to physical entanglement, the memoried past to the simple present—by describing what seems to be ordinary everyday reality. Her stories are complex and powerful not so much because of what happens in them, but because of what cannot happen except in the mysterious human imagination. More polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today. If there is any justice and judgment in matters literary, she should redeem the short story from its second-class status single-handedly.


susan said...

So glad your girl won! It is a treasure for all of us.

susan said...

Could you give some wisdom on the writer, Tom Perrotta and his book, Nine Inches Stories....thanks!

Ligeia said...

I love the short story genre and love reading your blog. Thanks for posting excerpts from your book. I just bought it on Amazon and am looking forward to reading it!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for close to a year now, and I wanted to thank you for helping me to understand the short story a lot better - looking forward to buy your new book!

Dorothy Johnston said...

'I Am Your Brother' arrived yesterday. I've started reading it and am enjoying it immensely. Such a wealth of knowledge! I can't help thinking of Australian short story writers who illustrate some of the points you make, for example when you talk about how 'the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is a diversity or fragmentation of values and people'. This perfectly applies to the stories of Henry Lawson.
If I could make a technical point - I bought the print version, which I was happy to do - this is not a quibble - but I would have bought an epub version if there had been one, or if I'd been able to find it.
Am I right in thinking the only electronic version is for kindle?
I only ask this question because, as you know, I am new to ebook publishing as well, and I think it's a good idea to have both epub and mobi versions available.

Lee said...

Dorothy, it's easy to download the free Calibre program and use it to convert mobi files (the Kindle format) to epub ones. Calibre is very reliable, and heaps of people use it all the time, but if you have any problems, just email me.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Thanks for your help, Lee. i will do this.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks much, for buying my book, Dorothy. I hope it is readable and useful to you. I decided not to make the book available on Noon, Sony, Smashwords, etc. at first in order to take advantage of the Kindle Select program and Koll program. I may change my mind when the 90 day enrollment period is up.

Thanks also to Lee for the advice about the Calibre program for converting Kindle mobi files.

Also, one query to Dorothy: I just read Janet Frame's posthumous collection MY Father and the King. The stories seem mostly simple to me. Any thoughts of your own about her stories or Frame's reputation in Australia and New Zealand?

Dorothy Johnston said...

I have to say, to my embarrassment, that I am more familiar with Frame's novels than her short stories. I will follow this up. As to her reputation, she is much loved in my part of the world.
You could say that the novel 'Owls Do Cry' is written in a short story kind of way...

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Dorothy. And thanks very much for the generous review on Amazon. I so much appreciate it.