Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Alice Munro Did Not Kill the Short Story

On 10 October 2013, an author I know Twitter-declared that "the short story is officially dead."

This was a direct response to the announcement that Alice Munro is the 2013 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dead? Officially dead? Makes me want to go in and immediately lecture my students on the dangers of hyperbole.

So here's a couple of thoughts on the latest Twitter death rumor:

If Alice Munro is to be accused of killing the short story, then the short story needs first to be dead. This is just a necessary logical premise. No body, no murder charge. And the short story isn't even missing. The short story enjoys audiences around the world and, if you were to ask me, it's due a resurgence.

In our internet-centric world where people are reading more on electronic devices and are evermore convinced that they have less time for activities like reading and, you know, thinking, the short story is poised to become a breakout star. The perfect length for your daily commute. It could be sold in low-cost small segments, like buying one song from iTunes instead of the whole album. And they can be brilliant literature. Bite size pieces of literary delight.

If you're looking for a little exposure to the wonder that is the short story, but maybe you're not ready to commit to purchasing a full collection, or you don't have time to read, or you just don't get what the form is about, I want to recommend The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. That's right, you don't even have to read the short stories by yourself - people will read them to you! Every month they invite an author to choose a story from their archives, read it aloud and then discuss it with the fiction editor. It's a lovely way to dip your toes in the short story waters.

Hyperbole makes otherwise intelligent, talented writers look like they've been dining exclusively on sour grapes. Alice Munro has published sixteen (16!) books of short stories and is widely considered a master of the modern short story. Does this mean that everyone has to love her? Of course not. Part of the beauty of literature is is the very fact that what rocks my world may do nothing for yours. Quite frankly, I really like Munro's work. I find her prose beautiful, her details wonderfully chosen and her stories compelling. Is she my favourite writer? Not even close, but I can certainly appreciate her extraordinary body of work, which is precisely what the Nobel recognizes: a great contribution to literature by a body of work.

Of course, the people who initially came out, gloves swinging in response to the announcement have mostly been backtracking. Instead of sticking to their guns, they are now claiming that by describing her work as "not truly important" and "completely overrated" what they actually meant was that her work is "necessary and great to read", that "What I have [read by Munro] I have enjoyed greatly" and "[I]want to re-read Munro, who I never really got." Sound like the same guys? Yes, I've snuck in another male author - neither of whom I'm going to name, because this time belongs to Munro. Not to people who either shot off at the keyboards before thinking it through - which is preferable to the other option: that they're just trying to get their name out into the literary world by creating a bit of a ruckus.

Not that a ruckus is a bad thing in literature, but what is really being discussed? I have a sneaking suspicion that the lack of female dissenting voices is somewhat telling. Margaret Atwood noted in The Guardian that Munro has often faced the criticism that her stories are "too domestic". Is there a male writer at whom this criticism has been leveled? The most domestic character that I can think of is Kazuo Ishiguro's Stevens in Remains of the Day. He is an actual "domestic" and the story centers around a house, household chores and the relationships of the people who live in the house. Yet, no one tells Ishiguro that his fiction is too domestic to be worthy. Hopefully, the male writers I have in mind in this latest Munro-fracas would find me very far off the mark. I think the one that I know, would have written similar remarks regardless of Munro's gender. Even if they in particular would have reacted exactly the same way if Munro were male, the same cannot be said for the literary world in general. And, unfortunately, this is the literary world in which we are now

I was talking with my students about setting just last week and we discussed why a writer chooses a particular setting. In science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy and all the literary fiction that the naysayers reckon is better than Munro's and more deserving of praise, writers choose a setting to tell their story. Truly great stories transcend that setting. Setting is just another tool in the writer's arsenal for telling a better story. By this standard, Munro is the perfect laureate. Her stories, so deeply rooted in a country with fewer than thirty-five million inhabitants, have touched people the world over. If people are looking for literature that disrupts, that asks questions and is inspiring, what could be more subversive than giving the power of storytelling to the quiet people of quiet towns and having the drama of those stories resonate with readers who have entirely different experiences in and of the world?

So, enough complaining. Why is it brilliant that Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature?

1. She is the thirteenth female laureate in literature since the prize's inauguration in 1901. Only 44 women have been awarded any Nobel Prize, with Marie Curie receiving it twice. Check out the full list of female Nobel laureates here. As the woman herself said, "It seems dreadful, there are only thirteen of us."

2. She's the first Canadian to win! Well, there's Saul Bellow, but for some reason, he's being called American despite his Canadian birth. Who am I to judge what nationality people want to be called? First or second, it's great for Canadian literature. Her stories are rooted in the Canadian landscape, people and culture. Revel in the fantastic art that comes out of this fabulous country. (I write that with only the most enormous bias in favor of Canada)
Interested in Canadian writers? Check out this saucy calendar of discreetly nude Canadian authors including Yann Martel of Life of Pi fame. All proceeds support PEN Canada and they mail internationally. Full disclosure: I know one of the founders and she happens to be a great Canadian writer, herself.

3. It's great for the short story. Short story collections are notoriously hard to publish and, of course, to sell. It's an underrated form, but, as you've already heard, I think the short story is ready for a golden age. I, for one, am happy to have Alice Munro's work leading the charge.

Her winning takes nothing from other amazing short story writers. The stories of Chekov, Borges, Carver and all the others are no less amazing for her win. People may claim that her work doesn't break enough rules, push enough boundaries. Maybe they have a point, but what her work does is show us is a writer in complete mastery of a very difficult form. It shows us the power of stories to reach across boundaries of all types: time, national, literary and more. Munro's unflinching work over her lifetime did and does push the limits of the short story. The fact that her win can inspire such discussion proves the influence and importance of her work. We write from the shoulders of giants and, love her or hate her, Alice Munro is a giant of the short story.

This writer can only say, "Congratulations."

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