By Ailsa Cox
Some one said to me the other day, ‘I don’t get Alice Munro.’ It’s okay, I told her. There are writers I don’t like much either, and it all comes down to taste. But could I tell her, she insisted, what it is that draws me to Alice Munro? I answered by talking about reading The Beggar Maid (1978) not long after it came out, and how as a bookish young woman from the working class I identified with the protagonist – ‘no use nor ornament’ as the saying used to go. But mostly, I told her, it was simple elegance of Munro’s prose. As a teenager I was drawn to more flamboyant styles of writing. I loved D. H. Lawrence (and still do); at school, I was entranced by the elevated language of Dylan Thomas’s ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. As I grew older, I realized that good writing wasn’t necessarily measured by its volume of symbols and metaphors.
There are few such devices in Munro, though her stories are rich in connotation and intertexual references, such as the Tennyson poem and the painting by Burne Jones that gives The Beggar Maid its title. A sentence in Munro can turn on a comma or a preposition, the unornamented prose concealing endless subtleties for the reader to interpet. When I’m quoting from Munro I have to double-check that I haven’t inadvertently meddled with the word-order or the punctuation. Look at this phrase from ‘Wenlock Edge’ in Too Much Happiness (2009): ‘In a short time the phone rang, for Nina, and I heard her saying, on the landing, [..]’. Move the commas and the meaning shifts ever so slightly.
What is most important in Munro is not what is said overtly, but that which is implied, or left ambiguous, throughout the story and especially at its ending.
When I first began writing about Munro for my PhD in the nineties, she was what is always called ‘a writer’s writer’; my fellow-writers were the only ones who’d heard of her, and they tended to be evangelical about her work. Now she’s much more widely known, and I’ve become used to defending her against those who don’t ‘get’ her. Many readers expect, if not a twist, then some kind of revelation at a story’s conclusion, and often the satisfaction of having learnt something new. Munro’s stories are typically structured as overlapping and sometimes clashing memories and anecdotes, speculations and private fantasies, all grounded in small town, suburban or semi-rural life. They end inconclusively, often in a fragmented or speculative manner. In my years of university teaching, I’ve often found that mature students take to Munro enthusiastically, while the twenty-somethings are less impressed. If your own memories stretch only to your childhood, you are less likely to understand the nuances of time, recollection and regret that are the very fabric of her fiction.
So, when Kate Gould at Harris Westminster Sixth Form contacted me about an online Q&A I wondered how a group of British teenagers would respond to Alice Munro. Harris Westminster is a selective state school a few minutes walk from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It recruits students from across the capital on the basis of an exam and interview. Preference is given to socio-economically deprived students, with fifty per cent currently in receipt of free school meals; the intake is also ethnically diverse. I was surprised, and pleased, to hear these students were enjoying Too Much Happiness.
At the time when Kate contacted me, In February 2021, schools were still in lockdown. There had been some gung-ho optimism from the government over Christmas, but they had closed again just one day after pupils returned in January. Lockdown has been an especially difficult period for young people, with the loss of so much face-to-face teaching and ongoing confusion about the handling of exams; I felt I was doing a good deed, but what I didn’t know was how gratifying the session would be, and how the students would help me to look at the stories differently.
Although Munro’s stories resist traditional linearity, they often include dramatic events that would not be out of place in a TV crime drama; three out of the ten stories in Too Much Happiness are murder stories of one kind or another. As an account of the trauma suffered by a mother whose children have been slaughtered by their father, ‘Dimensions’ is an especially distressing read, and must have been extraordinarily difficult to write. Some have even seen the story, first published as ‘Dimension’ in the New Yorker in 2006, as prefiguring a similar case in British Columbia.
The students’ questions in the session tended to centre around the Gothic elements in the texts and the moral questions they raise. The early influence on Munro of Southern Gothic writers from the US is well-known, as is Munro’s kinship, through her father’s family, the Laidlaws, to the Scottish writer James Hogg, author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner. ‘Free Radicals’, in which a killer insinuates his way into the protagonist’s house, is straight out of Flannery O’Connor; the deadpan intruder even shows her polaroids of his newly-slain relations. Munro is mostly regarded as an unfashionably realist writer. I’ve previously argued that gruesome events are shifted to the margins of her stories – that she’s less concerned with the incidents themselves than with how we survive them. The students were as surprised as I was to hear that ‘Free Radicals’ has been optioned for Miramax. But why look at this text through the lens of horror, just as Almodóvar’s Julieta reframed other Munro stories as a sumptuous soap opera?
In her fiction people behave perversely, often inexplicably, even to themselves. She doesn’t offer reasons or pass judgement. This may be difficult for younger readers to accept, particularly when the study of literature is so often predicated on neat categories and simple themes. The critic Charles E. May has often spoken about why it’s difficult to draw socially useful lessons from short stories, giving passionate voice to that argument in his article ‘Why many authors like short stories and many readers do not’. The murder at a summer camp in ‘Child’s Play’ remains undetected and seemingly unpunished, a relatively minor incident safely in the past. At Harris Westminster, their teacher told me, students worry that they might have missed a clue when there are gaps in the narrative. But it is in those gaps that the reader might wonder about the ethical issues that Munro refuses to resolve.
When student asked me about the author’s moral stance they were acknowledging how shocking this refusal can make us feel, as readers who expect a narrative to deliver retribution. Every type of fiction offers some kind of escape into another world, but Munro’s is not the kind of fiction that provides comfort in a neatly ordered universe, where there is a clear dividing line between good and evil. As Munro herself has said in an interview with the Australian journal Meanjin she isn’t interested in sermons. Good fiction has the power to startle and disturb in a personal way, and to make us think for ourselves.
Ailsa Cox is Professor Emerita of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University, UK. Her books include The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland), Alice Munro (Northcote House) and Writing Short Stories (Routledge). She is the editor for Short Fiction in Theory & Practice. Her latest short story, “Cocky Watchman”, was published with Nighjar Press.