How Alice Munro Reinvigorated The Short Story

“I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was ‘call attention to yourself,’ or ‘think you were smart,’ ” Alice Munro, who died on Monday, at age ninety-two, once said. She rebelled against this edict, of course, but it stayed with her. There was, in her writing, often a very deliberate, confident moment of calling attention to herself—an attempt to startle, to pierce with words and meaning—and then a more modest retreat. Fireworks, followed by starlight. That seeming contradiction was always there. In person, she could come off as reserved, demure (albeit with a sharp sense of humor), yet she wrote fearlessly and sometimes explicitly about bodies and sex, death, crime, tragedy—the damage people inflict on one another in the name of love.

It’s a tautology to say that the author of story collections with such titles as “Lives of Girls and Women” and “The Love of a Good Woman” wrote about women; in fact, what Munro did was not so much write about women as write from inside them. When her characters don’t understand exactly what they’re feeling, she expresses it in such a way that you can both feel the confusion yourself and see beneath it to its cause. Reading her stories, you merge with her characters and also with yourself. You learn about Munro, too, of course. “I have used bits and pieces of my own life always,” she once told me. And now I can see in my mind’s eye the landscape of rural southwestern Ontario, where Munro grew up, her father’s fox farm, her mother debilitated by early-onset Parkinson’s, the slabs of limestone above the Canadian Shield, the movie theatres, the churches, the train stations. The details in her stories are vividly specific, and yet the emotional and psychological plots could unfold anywhere. You sink into her narratives with a feeling of both strangeness and recognition.

Munro’s relationship with The New Yorker began in 1977, with the story “Royal Beatings,” which was championed in the Fiction department by Charles McGrath, despite certain language that disturbed the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “I remember William Shawn, famous for his fastidious taste, was a little taken aback by the story’s references to ‘bathroom noises,’ and a couplet that read, ‘Two Vancouvers fried in snot! / Two pickled arseholes tied in a knot!,’” McGrath recalled in 2006. “I defended the inclusion of both. The final New Yorker version of the story included the reference to ‘arseholes,’ but not to ‘bathroom noises.’ ” In the eighties, when one of Munro’s stories described a woman’s pubic hair as “the rat between Dina’s legs,” she was prevailed upon to rewrite the phrase, and came up with the “dark, silky pelt of some unlucky rodent.” Nevertheless, her relationship with The New Yorker lasted for the rest of her writing life and more than fifty stories. Working with her on the last two dozen or so was both a thrill and a lesson in intentionality. Although her stories seemed to move organically, sometimes even to wander, often when I suggested cutting a passage that I thought was extraneous I had to erase my suggestion when the importance of that passage became manifestly clear a few pages later. Invariably, when I felt that something wasn’t entirely working in a story, she would send me a revision before I’d even had time to talk to her about it.

Munro was loyal to the short story. I remember her telling me once that she frequently believed she was embarked on a novel, only to find that the narrative ended after forty pages or so. Though she sometimes framed this as a failure, it was actually a reinvigoration of the form. Her stories were novels with the extra bits removed, no time wasted on the fallow or uneventful stretches. Fellow fiction writers often speak with awe about the movement through time in her stories—how she could focus tightly on one short period in a life and then abruptly leap years, or even decades, forward or backward, without breaking her narrative line. Her stories are like mountainous landscapes, with trails that wind gradually upward to dramatic peaks, spill down into valleys, and then climb again. As in life, what can seem to be the climax of a narrative is sometimes just a prelude to what comes next. ♦

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