Why You Should Read Alice Munro
A woman receives a call from her daughter one night. The latter says: “Mom, you’ve won!” A few days later, the woman says of the announcement: “I was kind of dazed about what I had won. I had no idea of it.”
Alice Munro is a famously unaffected writer who is so diligently serious with her craft that she seems to waste no time taking herself seriously. Her fame reached far beyond the Anglophone world only recently. In Turkey, her short story collections appeared in bookshelves after she became the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2013, the only writer honored by the Swedish Academy that has nothing but short stories to offer.
I am among those latecomers to Munro. I had never developed any real interest in short stories, thinking the novel a more ambitious dive, a complete underworld to sink into where both the narrative and the reading experience needed a firm dedication to time and space. I liked slow savoring. I liked characters fleshed out to leave lasting marks in my imagination. I secretly believed that writing short stories was a sheltered zone for those who simply could not wrestle with a novel. Yet my first Munro experience, “Child’s Play”, embarrassed me right away. The core of the story is set in a children’s summer camp where two girl friends tie themselves up in a dreadful bond they cannot break until one of them falls into her deathbed. The narrator is so sharp and guileless in her recollection of childhood that to an adult reader, the cruelty of young age seems both safely distant, yet eerily accurate.
Munro’s world spans generations. She wrote “Child’s Play” in her seventies and about aging spinsters in her twenties. Her characters are mostly ordinary people in ordinary circumstances experiencing middle class encounters. Her particular focus is on women, but she never falls into the trap of high-sounding morality. To read her work in a feminist light is to realize that Munro is a feminist only out of circumstance. If the essential marker of good fiction is keen insight into human condition, Munro is naturally most aware of her own situation as a woman: “- the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin.” she says in an interview with The Paris Review. An exception though could be Too Much Happiness, the titular story in one of her collections, based on the life of a major Russian mathematician who was also a novelist. Fascinated by the idea of a woman mastering two seemingly distinct occupations, Munro wrote the story after thoroughly researching the life of Sophia Kovalevsky. It’s not hard to imagine that in the 19th century, Kovalevsky was a rare talent straddling both worlds; that of fact and fiction, dominated by men.
As I read further stories by her, mostly set in Ontario where single-family houses are sometimes more than just a backdrop and weigh as much in the narrative as characters living in, abandoning or watching them, I came to acknowledge that a short story is by no means a lesser form of the novel. In Munro, concision does not undermine the complexity of characters’ intentions and ambiguities. And she makes use of drama without being dramatic. Scenes of death, infidelity or sex don’t quite take center stage, but rather act as conveyors moving the story forward. Erotic tension is more accentuated than actual sex scenes. In some places, people die or divorce early to clear the way for plot development. In one story, a mother comes home to find her children killed. The scene is almost cinematic in its crudeness; the mother’s reaction is not theatrical but is not one of bland numbness either. Munro doesn’t need the heights of poetry to succinctly express the gravity of a moment. The prose does not float in a lyrical vacuum, nor does its concision derail understanding. The style is just precise which serves the purpose of the genre.
Precision in a short story requires a thorough knowledge of characters that will inform, not necessarily evidently, the scenes in their lives selected for the story. The reader doesn’t need to know whether they’ve ever voted Conservative or driven alone in the suburbs late at night, but gets the impression that the author offers us just what we need to know about a whole person, not more, not less. That might be what sometimes draws Munro’s readers to appreciate her stories as a longer narrative. Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar took Munro’s Chance, Soon and Silence featuring different life stages of a central character, Juliet. He added a Spanish sizzle to the romance and parent-child relationship and produced the feature film Julieta. An accomplished adaptation in its own right, the movie is in some places too compact to do justice to the many layers of each Munro story.
I am absolutely indebted to this writer for enriching my understanding of literature and showing me the immense possibilities of shorter fiction. Besides her numerous collections including Runaway, Dear Life and Dance of the Happy Shades; you can find Alice Munro’s stories in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker, some of them available online (Dimension and Train for instance, in addition, Axis is available as a podcast.)
 Alice Munro, The Art of Fiction No. 137, The Paris Review, Issue 131, Summer 1994.
By Merve Pehlivan
Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She is also the host and founder of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Türkçe, you can find out about that here: @SpokenWordIstanbul