This week's profile is of Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. Munro is one of those rare creatures in contemporary publishing, a writer who has made her name and career publishing short fiction. She has explained her dedication to the form of the short story as driven not by choice but necessity. Munro explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of Selected Stories that she had wanted to be a novelist, but that family responsibilities (she gave birth to four daughters, of whom three survived) made the sustained effort of a novel impossible for her. Munro says she "took to writing in frantic spurts, juggling my life around until I could get a story done, then catching up on other responsibilities." Later Munro's stories seemed to stretch out, lengthen, and contain whole towns and worlds. Like Chekhov's later stories, Munro's longer stories seem to compress and distill a novel's worth of insight and incident. Cynthia Ozick has said of Munro "She is our Chekhov, and is going to outlast most of her contemporaries." Still, there seems to be a reluctance to lionize a writer who has published only short stories, as if true greatness requires the heft and weight of novels. Munro has won the Man Booker International Prize, Canada's Governor General's Literary Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and many other awards--and she is revered by other writers, especially writers of short fiction. To a general reading audience, however, Munro is probably not a household name--not that she would care to be.
What I love about Munro's stories is the way they seem to build toward some conclusion, and then surprise the reader by turning in a slightly different direction, one that has the reader nodding and thinking, yes, that's exactly how it would be. Munro's stories work toward the kind of epiphany that Chekhov has conditioned us to expect, but the epiphany always comes in some unexpected way. An example of this is the story "How I Met My Husband," or the story "Runaway" from the collection Runaway. The story just doesn't go where you think it's going to go, it goes somewhere much deeper, close to the core of existence.
Alice Munro calls herself "thrifty and tenacious" as a writer, shaping her stories through "hopelessly misbegotten" stages, writing and discarding pages and pages, until she knows "so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there." (Vintage, 1997) Munro penetrates into the riddles, the mysteries, the dark sides of everyday lives. Her women and girls are not extraordinary--except that they are, the way we are all extraordinary when scrutinized closely.
I love the way Munro describes reading a story, starting anywhere and proceeding in either direction. She says a story "is not like a road to follow...it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for awhile, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows." (Vintage, 1997)
I love this way of looking at reading stories, as rooms and corridors the reader wanders in at will. Stories lend themselves to wandering, and if you are like me, a compulsive reader and re-reader, then stories are perfect for luxuriating in this way.
To roam around the rooms of a Munro story, you might just as well pick up a Best American Short Stories of almost any year--Munro almost always has a story included in any given volume. She has many wonderful collections, including Loveship, Hateship, Courtship, Marriage, Lives of Girls and Women, and most recently, Too Much Happiness. For an introduction to the writer's work, I would favor the Vintage paperback collection, Selected Stories, with an excellent introduction by Munro, or Carried Away: A Collection of Stories, published by Everyman, and with an introduction by Margaret Atwood.