Alice Munro: Never too much happiness

Inside the remarkable triumph of the world’s greatest storyteller

Derek Shapton

Has there been a more popular Nobel laureate in recent memory? The Oct. 10 announcement of Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was met not by respectful applause or a modest uptick in patriotic pride among her compatriots, but by expressions of outright joy, sometimes to the speaker’s own surprise. One Internet commentator summed up his feelings in a phrase at once absurd, inevitable and exquisitely apt: “A good day, a day like beating the Russians at hockey.” Yes, indeed: That is how much Alice Munro matters to Canadians.

Adding to our pleasure was the evident truth we weren’t alone in our regard. Helped along by the fact that the Anglo world hasn’t had a laureate to celebrate since Doris Lessing in 2007—not to mention a run of recent winners little-known in English translation—American and British praise was scarcely less effusive. Novelist A.S. Byatt declared the announcement “has made me happiest in the whole of my life.” The rest of the world seemed to approve, as well, which speaks volumes about the clarity of Munro’s prose and the quality of her translators. In Paris, the newspaper Le Monde, in an admiring tribute entitled “La reine de la nouvelle,” echoed the famous refrain—“Read Munro! Read Munro!”—of American writer Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 New York Times review of her Runaway—“Oui, Franzen a raison. Il faut lire Alice Munro.”

Even the very few naysayers the media managed to turn up only seemed to add to the general approbation. Various newspapers pointed to Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books, and his unflattering review in June of Dear Life, but then confused the issue by quoting from a section where Lorentzen summed up the views of Munro fans, making him sound bizarrely like a cheerleader: “Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.” Franzen could hardly have said it better. Otherwise, the search for contrarians pulled up only Bret Easton Ellis, and when your most prominent critic is recognized primarily as the author of American Psycho (1991), you are by definition doing good work.

Yet, running through the happiness was a current of surprise, even—among writers, at least—of relief. The Nobel has not chosen a writer best known for short fiction since Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978, and the prolific American author also had 18 novels to his credit. At 82, Munro has none. What she has is the adulation of her fellows. Aamer Hussein, the prominent Pakistani short-fiction author who is also a literature professor at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, credited Munro with being the single individual who, “more than anyone in the Western world, has kept the short story alive as a vibrant, developing form.” Peter Englund, the Swedish academy’s permanent secretary, perhaps reflecting on recent Nobel history, sounded almost impressed with his selection committee’s audacity when he made the announcement. “She has taken an art form which has tended to come a little bit in the shadow behind the novel, and she has cultivated it almost to perfection.”

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And so she has, in subtle, supple prose that Tracy Ware, an English professor at Queen’s University, who has taught Munro for 30 years, says “matches anyone’s.” She was born in 1931 in tiny Wingham, Ont. (Depression-era population 3,000), the child of a failing fox farmer and a former schoolteacher mother who would die young of Parkinson’s. A bright girl, she won a small scholarship that—combined with various part-time jobs and selling her blood—kept her going at the University of Western Ontario in London for two years. Munro then dropped out, partly from lack of money and partly to marry. Alice and her husband, Jim Munro, moved to Vancouver (later Victoria) and opened a bookstore while raising three daughters. When the marriage ended, Alice moved back home to Ontario, eventually settling with her second husband, Gerry Fremlin, in Clinton, a bare 30 km from Wingham. Through it all, Munro wrote and wrote.

Her settings and her primarily female characters, Margaret Atwood once noted, may come almost exclusively from her original and new home, which painter Greg Curnoe of London Ont., called Sowesto, more conventionally known as Southwestern Ontario. But that region is a place of “considerable psychic murkiness and oddity,” according to Atwood, a long-time Munro friend and fellow CanLit icon. It’s home not just to Munro, but to John Kenneth Galbraith (who, famously, dismissed it as “devoid of topographic, ethnic or historical interest”), Robertson Davies, the Donnelly massacre and, more important, to the still-judgmental offspring of rigid Calvinists, the sort of people who, during Munro’s youth in the 1930s and ’40s, disapproved of sex, for fear it might lead to dancing.

What lies within stories set in that seemingly bland and respectable society, Atwood continues, are: “lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours.” And although Munro’s four-decade-long relationship with The New Yorker now appears like a magical love affair, the magazine’s legendary editor-in-chief William Shawn was troubled at first, says his fiction editor Chip McGrath, at finding such “roughness, not so much in the language, as the emotional violence in writing of such quality.” Shawn insisted on the removal of some “toilet noises” from “Royal Beatings,” the first Munro story to run in The New Yorker, but he was sufficiently impressed to allow an “arsehole” into his hallowed pages, and quickly became, McGrath adds, one of the writer’s chief admirers.

The tales, however rough their contents, are told with the “preternatural” sympathy and utter lack of sentimentality that Lorentzen so unwittingly pointed to. “Ruthless is too strong a word,” allows Robert Thacker, an American professor of Canadian Studies and English at New York’s St. Lawrence University and author of the biography Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, in an interview, “but she has the steel.” (And not just in artistic vision: “Her daughters told me they knew when she was far into writing, because she was always somewhere else, even when she was right in front of you, making dinner.”)

The quintessential Munro protagonist is moved seamlessly through time by her creator; she is often looking at Sowesto and the past with fresh eyes, having returned from somewhere else; she knows she is not guiltless in whatever has transpired, that the pursuit of her dreams (or self-interest—the reader can choose) is not bruise-free for others in her life. She’s stifled, burdened with work and kids, in the midst of a breakup—“themes that come up again and again, but in different forms,” says McGrath, “so you’d be crazy to read them as autobiography.”

And the characters are also acutely aware that “memory is untrustworthy, both crucial and slippery,” says Ware. The quality of the work, he adds, has varied as little as the themes, except to get better over time. Munro wrote the first of the three story collections Ware judges her best—The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) and Runaway (2004)—at age 67.

As slippery as memory is Munro’s creative process. She once spoke about how “the complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless.’’ Perhaps that’s why the shape of the stories is so protean. Munro was always slow to sign her work, and never put her name on a manuscript until she felt ready to mail it off. In 1960, she sent what would become, eight years later, the title story of her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, to the now defunct Montrealer magazine unsigned—an indication, biographer Thacker suggests, that she was ambivalent about it. The Montrealer editor who found it, the sole diamond in a foot-high slush pile, ended up sending letters to American advice-for-writers magazines to find the author. Vancouver poet Elizabeth Gourlay, who had heard the story on CBC Radio, saw one of the reprinted letters and informed Munro.

Munro apparently believes her stories, even when satisfactory enough to submit to editors, even when fully approved by those editors, are never really set in stone. Thacker points to several that have different endings in Canadian and American editions, the work of an inveterate reviser. Ware, for one, is only half-joking when he worries that Munro may some day go back and rewrite everything: “At some point, you hope she’ll let the historical record stand.”

“You don’t want to give her too much of a chance at revision,” exclaims her agent and close friend Ginger Barber over the phone from her home in Virginia. “Don’t print that. Oh, go ahead, she’ll hear me laughing.”

Doug Gibson, Munro’s long-time Canadian publisher, relates in his book Stories About Storytellers how Munro wanted to make major changes to Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)—including moving from the first person to the third and adding a new story—when the manuscript was already at the printers. Author, publisher and printer managed to pull it off, but Gibson made Munro pay a financial penalty for the expense incurred—as a kindness, he slyly implies—because, as someone of the same background as the Scots Presbyterians she writes about, “Alice expected nothing less.” As with her characters, to step out of line means a price has to be paid, always.

The changes, though, represent more than a perfectionist’s quirks; as much as anything, they foster the awe in which Munro is held by other writers. “Changing from first to third person?” says Ware. “After the story has already been good enough to appear in The New Yorker? That astonishes writers, who think you need the voice first before you can do anything.”

Munro, crucially, accomplished all this within a national literary culture that validates short stories perhaps more than any other English-language society. Speaking of his fellow Canadian publishers, Gibson notes that “our colleagues in London and New York would gaze in wonder at our short-story collections’ sales and ask how that happened. They were very dubious of the commercial potential in their own markets. I think it was our good fortune to have had such extraordinary practitioners. We’d say that the Canadian public was used to getting really good stories from really good writers.” To a very large extent, that’s the one-woman founder effect of Alice Munro, who demonstrated, by her critical and commercial success, the reach and possibilities of her genre. (In two decades, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest and most prestigious, has been won by short-story collections just three times—two were by Alice Munro.)

But it’s also a matter of the twists of CanLit history. What, after all, nurtured Munro in the days before she paved a path for others? There were outlets for short fiction, in English Canada’s nascent literary world during Munro’s youth, that didn’t necessarily exist for novels. There were magazines like Chatelaine (for anything that could be construed as “women’s writing”) and Robert Weaver’s Tamarack Review (which Munro recalled years later as “a brave little magazine”) and, above all, there was Weaver’s CBC Radio show, Anthology, the program that broadcast her story “The Dance of the Happy Shades.” Looking at the situation “from a starving artist’s perspective,” Gibson concurs with the advantages of stories then: “a little work, for a little money that would come much faster than an uncertain bigger payoff further down the line for more work.”

It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of Weaver in mid-20th century CanLit, according to scholars who have studied it. “He has this ill-defined mandate from the CBC”, Thacker relates, with only slight exaggeration, “and he decided to use it to create a national literature.” He was a lifeline for writers scattered across the country, not least to Munro, who was in contact with him early. One of her letters to Weaver notes she is now named Munro, meaning she was talking about a story she had sent before her wedding at age 20 in 1951, while she was still Alice Laidlaw.

Yet, even while she was taking what advantage she could from the limited but real openings for short fiction, Munro kept trying to write a novel. “There’s one from the ’50s in her papers at the University of Calgary,” says Thacker. “It’s called ‘Red Fox,’ and it’s really an extended short story. You can see her struggle—short story was just the way her imagination worked.” But the pressure for a novel was inescapable, the only foreseeable route, not just to any faint hope of making a living as an author, but to what Munro really wanted: recognition as a serious writer. It was what everyone in the book trade—critics, her eventual agent Ginger Barber, publishers and the writer herself—wanted and expected from her. Munro’s second book, the linked short stories of Lives of Girls and Women (1971), was marketed, wrongly, as a novel, a decision everyone involves now admits was a mistake. A crisis point, both personal and artistic, was rapidly approaching.

Munro stories start with an idea, usually an image, something that makes their creator want to know “the rest of the story,” the before and after. In the arc of her own life, from Wingham to Stockholm, 1973 to 1977 is the hinge moment.

“There is no other time in her life to match it,” says Thacker, for its subsequent influence. Munro returned to Sowesto, an accomplished artist looking with fresh eyes at old ground, old social situations, old memories. At the same time as her aesthetic vision was changing and gaining in power, her marriage had crumbled. She was looking for ways to support her children. She was certain she would need a day job: a daunting prospect in itself, since, until her divorce, she had never owned a chequebook. And she still hadn’t the recognition she sought. The weight of the novel demand was heavier than ever. For reasons practical and aesthetic, Alice Munro was struggling with her natural artistic abilities and instincts.

Then new people, bearing new possibilities, came into her life. Everyone in the Canadian book trade knew about her situation. Gibson, then working for Macmillan, hopped a bus to London—“that will tell you about the financial resources of Canadian publishing in 1976,” he dryly adds—to meet Munro. “I told her conventional wisdom was all wrong. If she wanted to write short stories, I wanted to publish them. I told her, ‘I’ll never ask you for a novel.’ ” It was an offer of support Munro repaid, with interest, when she followed Gibson from Macmillan to his new position at McClelland and Stewart in 1986.

Two Americans played pivotal roles. Barber—only recently become an agent after some years as a professor of literature, and in the process of shifting her new focus from theatre to fiction—asked her good friend Phoebe Larmore, Atwood’s agent, if she knew of any promising writers needing representation. At the same time, Munro was seeking agent advice from Atwood—not as a celebrated writer, but as the canny businesswoman who was among the first Canadian authors to grasp the importance of agents and what would now be called brand protection. The two women met, Munro gave Barber a few stories and Barber called The New Yorker’s new fiction editor.

“She invited me to lunch,” Chip McGrath recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have gone any other time, but I was new and I was hungry for new writers.” Barber gave him a bag of six or eight Munro stories—no one any longer remembers exactly how many. McGrath didn’t have high expectations. “I remember thinking, ‘Great, a new Canadian writer, just what we need.’ Then I read them.” McGrath accepted two of them right off the bat—“unheard-of for a new writer,” says Barber—the first of nearly 60 more that have indelibly linked author and magazine ever since.

McGrath knows a lot, “sometimes more than I want,” he says, about the personal lives of most of the writers he has dealt with over his career. That’s emphatically not the case with the private Munro. (McGrath describes an encounter between her and the equally reticent Shawn as “shy versus shy.”) So it was only in retrospect, he says now, “that I understood what a vital time this was in Alice’s life. She wasn’t a complete unknown, but her books were going nowhere in the United States and Ginger had been frank that, if she, Alice, was going to restart her career here, she needed a novel. And Alice had tried and tried. If she had pulled it off, she would presumably be a lot richer, but the short story would be so much poorer.”

Instead, a confluence of events, people, deepening artistic power and a certain Sowesto stubbornness, moved the story of Alice Munro in another direction. The new situation brought her fame and stability, both financial and personal. It let Alice Munro become Alice Munro. It wouldn’t be an Alice Munro story if what followed were a straight line to a glittering ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10—there were decades of nonpareil stories to come first. But the path had been cleared, the route opened to what McGrath calls “win, win, win: for her, for Canada, for the short story.” A good day, all right, better even than beating the Russians.




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