Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Family Furnishings"

Some writers are referred to as "a writer's writer," a designation that suggests they are mainly appreciated by other writers—not bad if you treasure the approval of your fellow writers, but not so good if you want to sell your work to a larger audience than other writers--although given the burgeoning of MFA programs, the audience of writers and wannabe writers seems to be growing.
The short story writer, who used to be thought of as a money grubbing hack of the sub-literary pulp and slick paper world, is now—if he or she is any good--more often thought of as "a writers' writer" than novelists. Why is that generally true?  Alice Munro is often called a "writer's writer."  And indeed, if you read the reviews of her work by other writers, you know that other writers are almost universally rhapsodic about her short stories. Why is that specifically true of Munro?
As a side note: I did read a recent interview with Joy Williams (a writer I admire a great deal) in The Paris Review, Summer 2014, in which Williams was more than a little snide about Munro. The interviewer asked Williams if she enjoyed writing, and here is her answer:
That nice Canadian writer who recently won the Nobel—beloved, admired, prolific. Who would deny it? She said she had a “hellish good time” writing. This could be a subject for many, many panels. Get a herd of writers together and ask them, Do you have a hellish good time writing? Mostly, I believe, the answer would be no. But their going on about it could take some time.
I am disappointed with Williams' condescending reference to Munro as merely a "nice Canadian writer." But, to continue this aside for a moment, Williams did say something interesting in response to the interviewer's inevitable question—"Can you define a short story?"—a response with which she and "that nice Canadian wrier" would definitely agree.  Here it is:
What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.
(Williams echoes Frank O'Connor's "Lonely Voice" theme in the interview, affirming her belief that "what the short story, as a form, excels in is the depiction of solitude and isolation." Munro would agree with this also.  So, of course, do I, which is why I named my most recent book "I Am Your Brother.")

But back to this issue of the short story writer in general and Alice Munro in particular as a "writer's writer."  I have talked about this in some detail in an presentation I made at Angers, France a few years ago and which has appeared in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, Vol. 2, 2012, under the title "Why Many Writers Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not."  Because of possible copyright violations, I will not reprint that article on this blog, but can give you an idea about its content with the following quote:

It should not be a surprise that several authors anointed with that kiss-of-death designation, “writer’s writer”—Alice Munro, William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Joy Williams, Steven Millhauser, David Means—are primarily short story writers.  And it should also not be a surprise that Francine Prose’s bravely titled 2006 book—Reading Like a Writer—devoted much more space to analyzing and praising the writing of short story authors than it did the writing of novelists.

I have always argued that the short story is a unique literary form that makes different demands on readers than its big-shouldered brother, the novel.  However, often, the only readers I have found who agree with me are writers of the short story. So I herewith call them to my aid.  I have rummaged through fifty years of notes and have read hundreds of author interviews, introductions, and commentaries to gather the judgments of 100 different authors on the short story. I have organized these judgments into several major categories that may prove helpful to our understanding of the short story.  It is remarkable how much in agreement the judgments of these one hundred authors are, and surprising that no one has ever gathered them together before and tried to derive some general conclusions from them.

In the essay, I discuss a number of reasons why short story writers are often referred to as "a writer's writer."  But one of the most obvious reasons that Alice Munro is so designated is she often writes stories about women who write short stories.  It may be that this is one of the reasons that so many reviewers of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage who are writers themselves have singled out "Family Furnishings" as their favorite story in the collection.

In what follows, I will note some of the aspects of the story that might identify it as a "writer's writer" story.
The introit for this story focuses on a particular day in the life of the narrator's father and his first cousin Alfrida who as children lived on adjoining farms—the day when World War I ended. The seemingly trivial event on this momentous day is the two children stomping on the ice in the furrows of the field and enjoying its crackle. When Alfrida tells this story, the father says she could not remember a thing like that and is making it up, which Alfrida denies.  The introit introduces the theme that the story later develops—whether a story is about something remembered or something invented—for when an event or a character is transformed into a story event or character, it always seems invention rather than recollection.
The first part of the story recounts the female narrator's recollections of Alfrida and her effect on her family.  Alfrida writes a column for the local newspaper as well as responses to letters to the paper.  From the narrator's perspective as a teenager, Alfrida is a sophisticated city person and has the ability to transform her rural family with her intelligence and wit. The narrator wants to escape her rural life for city sophistication, which she identifies later with her in-laws, who seem to live in a "world of storybook privilege." To the adolescent narrator, Alfrida represents a "liberated" woman, whose opinion is as valued as that of the men, although she sometimes seems to be putting on a show.  She regales the narrator with stories of people and events that the narrator has bound hints of in her reading, "but felt giddy to hear about, even at third or fourth hand, in real life."

One of the key issues here has to do with what seems most real to the writer—the stuff of writing or the stuff of the everyday. When asked if "Family Furnishings" was based on life, she says no, but when she was young writing was so important she would sacrifice anything for it.  "Because I thought of the world in which I wrote—the world I created—as somehow much more enormously alive than the world I was actually living in."  Alive in what way?  Alive in the way Chekhov says life in stories is alive, not the experiential world but the aesthetic world.
However, the one point on which the narrator's parents and Alfrida diverge is their attitude about sex.  When Alfrida asks if she can bring her male friend to visit, she is refused.  The narrator says her mother has a horror of "irregular sex or flaunted sex—of any sex, you might say, for the proper married kind was not acknowledged at all."
When the narrator wins a scholarship and goes to school in the city where Alfrida lives (Ottawa, Ontario), Alfrida invites her to visit, but she ignores the invitation and does not want to bring any of her friends to meet Alfrida, for she now understands that Alfrida is not so sophisticated and knows she would scorn the foreign films and literary novels that she and her friends read, for she has always referred to the narrator's father's classic novels as "hotshot reading."  The narrator's father pretends to agree with Alfrida about such things, even though he does read the books that Alfrida scorns.  The narrator, who wants to become a writer, says she does not want to show such contempt for things that matter to her, and that in order to not have to do that she would have to avoid those people she used to know, such as Alfrida, who has now lost all importance in her life.
When she does finally decide to go visit Alfrida, she is even more aware of the fact that Alfrida is not the sophisticated woman of the world that she once thought she was. During the visit, Alfrida talks about her mother, who died when a coal oil lamp exploded in her hands. The narrator talks a great deal about this story, especially how her aunts and her mother felt about it, seeing it as a "horrible treasure to them, something our family could claim that nobody else could, a distinction that would never be let go.  To listen to them had always made me feel as if there was some obscene connivance going on, a fond fingering of whatever was grisly or disastrous.  Their voices were like worms slithering around in my insides." (The story as treasure is interesting to me, for it seems to suggest that the writer perceives the value of significance in events that nonreaders do not.)
She is glad her fiancé did not come on the visit, for he would not have wanted to hear about Alfrida's mother's death.  "He admired opera and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, but he had no time for tragedy,--for the squalor of tragedy—in ordinary life… Failures in life—failures of luck, of health, of finances—all struck him as lapses and his resolute approval of me did not extend to my ramshackle background." (Another reference here to the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary by the artist.  What, actually does so-called real life have to do with art at all?)
Alfrida tells the narrator that they would not let her in to see her mother at the hospital, even though she yelled her head off.  Alfrida says, "You know what I said? I remember saying it.  I said, But she would want to see me. She would want to see me."  Alfrida laughs at herself scornfully, adding.  "I must've thought I was a pretty big cheese, mustn't I? She would want to see me."
The narrators says she had never heard that part of the story before. But the phrase Alfrida uses strikes an important chord for her. Here we have the most important paragraph in the story:
And the minute I heard it, something happened.  It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head.  I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself."
 She says the story she later wrote with the line, She would want to see me in it, obviously caused a rift between her and Alfrida. When her father tells her about Alfrida's being upset, she is surprised and angry that Alfrida's objects to something that seemed to have so little to do with her.  She tells her father it wasn't Alfrida at all,. "I changed it.  I wasn't even thinking about her.  It was a character.  Anybody could see that."  (This is basic paradox of art for the artist—that she is not really interested in "real life" at all, that what she takes from real life is only raw material, coarse "stuff" that she transforms into significance and meaning. )
She thinks there is a danger when she is at home with her father.  "It was the danger of seeing my life through other eyes than my own, seeing it as an ever-increasing roll of words, like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting—set against the rich productions the food, flowers, and knitted garments, of other women's domesticity." (And indeed, for the artist, it is the language that matters, not the stuff.)
At her father's funeral, she meets Alfrida's daughter who Alfrida gave up for adoption as a child. She tells her that Alfrida said she was smart but not as smart as she thought she was.  The daughter says Alfrida saw the narrator as a kind of "cold fish."
The story ends after  the Sunday afternoon dinner at Alfrida's as the narrator walks back alone to her rooming house.  She is glad that the people around her are people she did not know.  "What a blessing."  She goes into a drugstore for a cup of coffee and begins to feel happy to be alone. The story ends with these lines:
"I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida, but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories.  The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows.  Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.  This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be."
This is a difficult conclusion for nonwriters to accept, for it suggests that the writer is not interested in individual human people in the world, but rather the "formal," the "inhuman." I will conclude these comments by referring back to Joy Williams, who is better than her condescending remarks about Munro would suggest, a writer who is as aware of the loneliness of the writer's "cold fish" attitude toward reality than she might want to admit. Joy Williams says, short story writers love the dark and are always fumbling around in it. “The writer,” says Williams, doesn’t want to “disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.” 
Munro knows there is something obsessive and inhuman about the writer. In one of her most recent interviews, she said of her retirement, “There is a nice feeling about being just like everyone else now. But it also means that the most important thing in my life is gone." 
I am going to shut up about Alice Munro for a time on this blog, while I work on the essay on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage I have promised Bob Thacker for a collection of essays he is editing.  I will let you know when I think I have an essay.  In the meantime, let's take a look at the forty stories in this year's O. Henry Award Stories and Best American Short Stories.


Anonymous said...

I think the city that she went to visit Alfrida in was Toronto (she mentions being south of Dundas St, east of Adelaide St) -- her fiance is away in Ottawa, remember -- and it's not clear that Alfrida did ask to bring a friend to the narrator's parents' house (or just assumed she couldn't).

I also wondered at the end what exactly the narrator had missed about the relationship between Alfrida and her father, hinted at elsewhere (beyond her misinterpretation of the childhood story that opens this short story, that is).

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the note about the city being Toronto rather than Ottawa. I guess I thought it was Ottawa because I was just visiting the university in that city. And I did not think there was any special relationship between Alfrida and the father, except a kind of "meeting of the minds," as it were. What do you suspect?

Anonymous said...

Not sure, but that 'not that smart' comment made me wonder if they had had a relationship.

Anonymous said...

i always thought it was hamilton because it would have similar street names and then later the narrator moves to a bigger city.

Anonymous said...

I actually thought the city that she went to visit Alfrida in was London, ON. "East of Adelaide" is a well known term in London, and the description of houses in that part of town could well describe the area of London that is south of Dundas and East of Adelaide. I also often picture many of the rural Ontario towns that Ms. Munro writes about are likely in South Western Ontario, considering she grew up in Wingham. So if the narrator was travelling 60 miles from somewhere near Wingham, London would be a good guess.

I also wondered about a sexual relationship between Alfrida and the father.

Anonymous said...

Yes. London. Alice Munro attended. U. of Western Ontario in London.