Sunday, July 10, 2016

Alice Munro 85th Birthday Tribute: Always True to the Short Story

          Alice Munro has said 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.  Munro used the term “feeling” again when interviewer 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.”  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.”
          It should be noted, however, that most critics impressed by the complexity of Alice Munro’s work have usually attributed it to the form from which Munro has always turned away.  At the beginning of her career, critics and reviewers tried to dignify Munro’s short stories by highlighting their linked nature, thus attributing to them the dignity of the novel.  In 1972, in an interview with Graeme Gibson, Munro noted that many people said her novel Lives of Girls and Women was only a collection of long short stories, but, in a remark that must have irritated her critics and aggravated her publishers, she shrugged, “This doesn’t particularly bother me, because I don’t feel that a novel is any step up from a short story.”
          Asked a few years later if she thought Lives of Girls and Women was more of a novel than Beggar Maid, she replied that the former was an episodic novel, while the latter was a collection of linked stories.  She said she began writing Lives as a much looser novel than it turned out to be with a lot of things going on at the same time, but it was not working, so she began making the material into what are “almost self-contained segments” that could “almost stand as short stories.”  But, she continued, the sections of Lives are still all a bit too loose to be short stories.  Basically, she seems to suggest that whereas the chapters in Lives are like weak short stories, the stories in The Beggar Maid are genuine stories that were never meant to be chapters.  She says if the latter is going to be judged as a novel, it doesn’t work “because it doesn’t explain enough.”  She added that it might have been possible to go through the book and add a lot of “explanatory paragraphs and weave people in, but that would have weakened the stories as stories.”
Although Munro has insisted in more than one place that she does not write as a “true novelist” does, many critics and reviewers have tried to give her fiction the dignity they think belongs only to the novel by suggesting that her stories are “novelistic” and therefore more complex than short stories. Dan Cryer in Newsday said the title story of The Love of a Good Woman “opens up an entire world and feels almost like a novel,” by which he seems to mean that Munro’s creation of a multiplicity of realistic details and numerous characters gives rise to more complexity than the short story does. 
Another reviewer likened short stories in general to fireworks, e.g. launch, trajectory, burst of color, fading sparks.  In Munro’s new stories, she said, you get the history of the man lighting the fuse, the memories of an old woman watching, the implications for a couple at the display on a blind date.  “You get, in fact, all the complexity and nuance of a novel, concentrated within several dozen pages.”  Another said each story in The Love of a Good Woman “reads like a novel,” for “each is a vast canvas of complicated characters, tangled events and quietly turbulent revelations.”  The unexamined assumption of these remarks is that if the focus of the work is on numerous characters, interconnected events, social ideology, and the mimetic creation of a physical similitude, the story must therefore be more complex than a story with fewer characters, fewer events, and minimal context.
This same attribution of novelistic complexity also marked reviews of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  Mona Simpson, in her Atlantic review of Hateship, said that like the “astonishing title story” of her previous collection, the title story here “contains more range, drama, and tonal echoes than most contemporary novels.”   And Lorrie Moore claimed in The New York Review, that Munro” has a vision of the world that is like a novelist’s.” Munro always insisted that such judgments about her work were simply not true.
Regardless of what trends fiction followed during her writing career, Alice Munro 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 did not write in a vacuum, clearly aware of those short-story masters who have preceded her--Chekhov, Maupassant, Flannery O'Connor, Sherwood Anderson--but Munro found her own unique rhythm and controlled it consummately. Although a Munro story might initially appear to be novelistic,  her stories are deceptive; they lull 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
In her 1983 interview with Geoff Hancock, Munro talked about facing all those people who always ask her if her next book will be a novel, or at least a series of connected stories, and how everything falls away for them when she says no. Munro replied,  ”I think the most attractive kind of writing of all is just the single story.  It satisfies me the way nothing else does.  I will probably, from now on, just go on writing books of short stories which are not connected as long as my publisher will consent to publish them.” 
Readers should be grateful both to Alice Munro and her publisher for staying true to the short story throughout her life.
Happy Birthday, Ms. Munro. I miss reading new stories by you. The New Yorker just isn't the same.


Karl said...

I've always found that quote of Munro's about how she reads short stories by hopping around rather than reading from beginning to end rather bizarre. It seems disrespectful to ignore the author's intention as to how their story was (presumably) intended to be read.

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you, Karl. I think what Munro knows about the short story (and she knows a great deal)is that what is important in a short story is not so much "what happens next" as "how it all comes together" to mean something significant about the human mystery.