31 Days of Stories 2015: Introduction

April 30, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

The_Lonely_VoiceShort stories, argued the Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor, traffic in loneliness. In his classic evaluation of the form, The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor distinguishes between the novel, which is capable of operating on a large social canvas and addressing teeming masses of humanity, and the story, which usually focuses on individuals who are outsiders, loners, or members of what O’Connor referred to as “submerged population groups.” Novels, O’Connor argues, require at least one figure – usually the protagonist – with whom the reader can identify. Stories, by contrast, lack this locus of identification, replacing it – on the level of both subject and form – with characters and situations that are marginal, unfamiliar, or broadly disavowed.

The novel, in O’Connor’s conception, is social, whereas stories are essentially individual:

I am suggesting strongly that we can see in [the short story] an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time – tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests. The novel can still adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.

Perhaps this is one reason stories remain a matter of broad cultural indifference, especially in our current historical moment. Twenty-first century media, we are told, must be social – it must be shareable and clickable and likeable. But stories, as O’Connor recognized, contain a distinctly asocial (if not, in some cases, frankly anti-social) aspect: they privilege unique, idiosyncratic voices (on the part of both their characters and their creators) and operate outside accepted norms of practice.

Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate and surely Canada’s best-known writer of short fiction, exemplifies this idea, which makes her relative acceptance by mainstream readers something of a puzzle. Munro is one of the most subversive writers around: stories that on their surface appear to be straightforward works of naturalism in the kitchen-sink mode are in fact dark, sardonic, and (at least in her later period) almost expressionistic investigations into human cruelty and disaffection. Munro, it is true, is capable of greater swaths of compassion than Mavis Gallant, to whom she is frequently compared, but woe betide any reader who wishes to identify with a character from one of Munro’s stories.

This marginal aspect – along with a rigorous concentration of language and resistance to closure – is one of the major stumbling blocks to short fiction’s acceptance, but it is, paradoxically, also one of the things that makes the form so endlessly fascinating. As far as literature is concerned, novels have long been central to our conception of culture and canon; stories continue to remain peripheral. But their very location on the edges allows them greater freedom to experiment, to refashion themselves into new and unique shapes, and to test the boundaries of style and technique.

“I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done,” said Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize and former series editor for the O. Henry Awards anthology. Poetry, of course, was once given pride of place at the centre of the English and European canon; stories have never been afforded this distinction. Nevertheless, some part of Dark’s suggestion informs the impetus behind this site’s annual month-long celebration of the short story. By shining a light on the variety and scope of short fiction – contemporary and past, in English and in translation – it is hoped that readers might gain some appreciation of the potential in what has been (and will likely remain) a neglected literary genre.

Some of the stories that follow will probably be familiar to a majority of readers; others will undoubtedly be less so. We’ll begin tomorrow with a Canadian master’s return to the form after an extended absence, following which the perspective will broaden beyond Canada’s borders and will reach back into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With all respect to Dark, this is not advocacy, so much as enthusiasm; though I argue for the continued relevance of short fiction as a form, what keeps me returning to stories in general – and this project in particular – is enjoyment. While not always immediately gratifying – one of the other things that prevents a larger uptake in short fiction among a distracted populace is the demands the form places on its readers – stories are nevertheless sources of boundless pleasure. They can be funny, scary, infuriating, and heartbreaking, often at the same time. My hope is that at least some of this enjoyment proves infectious.

Down in the depths: (super)natural dread in new novels by Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter

March 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It might come as a surprise to hear that Andrew Pyper, one of this country’s most successful writers of literary thrillers, cites Alice Munro as an influence. Though, to think about it, the comparison should not be entirely unexpected. There is, of course, the strong and frequently acknowledged streak of so-called “Ontario gothic” in Munro’s writing, and there is no doubt that the Nobel laureate’s stories frequently engage with some pretty dark subjects and themes. But more than that, Munro is well aware of what any good writer of horror knows: to elicit emotion, it is essential to invest your reader in your characters and their situation. You have to give your readers a reason to care.

The_Damned_Andrew_PyperThis is true of all writing, of course, but it is particularly salient in the horror genre, since writers of scary or supernatural stories require suspension of disbelief on the part of readers in order to pull off their effects. “There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader,” writes Nick Cutter. “Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them.” Again, true enough across the board, but absolutely essential to the genre at hand.

Which is one reason why new novels by Pyper and Cutter are so deeply rooted in characters and their stories. Not the otherworldly terrors they fall prey to – although there are plenty of those to go around – but the dreadfully normal business of life: family, love, death, and loss.

On one level, the two writers could not be more different. Pyper has acknowledged an affinity for a quieter, more British strain of fiction that works on a reader’s psyche by increments, without resorting too effusively to overt violence or gore. Cutter, on the other hand, is something of an attack dog: his two novels (so far: there’s another one coming later this spring) assault their reader with snapping, slashing teeth and snarling aplomb. Yet there are undeniable similarities connecting the writers’ most recent offerings.

Pyper’s seventh novel, The Damned, appears two years after his previous work, The Demonologist. In addition to being the author’s most popular hit to date, The Demonologist marked a definite move into full-fledged genre territory. Pyper dipped his toe in the supernatural in his 2011 novel The Guardians, prior to which the terrors in his books were largely of this world. But with The Demonologist he dove in head first, and he continues to swim these waters in The Damned.

The new novel tells the story of twins – Danny and Ashleigh Orchard – both of whom die in a fire when they are sixteen years old. Except only one of them stays dead. Danny is revived and becomes a renowned exponent of near-death experience, writing about his encounter with heaven in a book he calls After. As a result of the book’s popularity, Danny meets other “Afterlifers” – people who have similarly died and been brought back to the mortal plane. One of these is Willa, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy named Eddie. When Danny falls in love with Willa, the restless spirit of Ash (who hates her full name and always goes by the diminutive – get it?) becomes jealous and determines to destroy the nascent relationship so as to keep her brother all to herself.

Though there is more to it than that – there are indications that Ash was murdered, and that she wants her corporal brother to investigate the crime and expose the culprit – the story is essentially a love triangle between Danny, his new flame (sorry) and his needy sister’s ghost.

Pyper’s tactic is to place Danny at the centre of the story, allowing him to carry the emotional weight. Danny acts as the novel’s first-person narrator, so everything is filtered through his eyes and his sensibility. In this way, Pyper grounds the novel’s more outré elements in a central consciousness readers can relate to: with one foot in this world and one in the next, Danny can act as a kind of tour guide to the other side, while never losing his essential connectedness to our messy physical realm.

The_Deep_Nick_CutterThis connectedness is essential in getting readers to accept the supernatural aspects of the story, which is something that Cutter exploits in The Deep, about a global pandemic called the ’Gets, the symptoms of which mimic a kind of jacked-up Alzheimer’s. The cure for the ’Gets may lie deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though the team in charge of discovering it has lost contact with the undersea lab, the Trieste, and its chief scientist, the brilliant but egotistical Clayton Nelson. One of Nelson’s colleagues – Dr. Cooper Westlake – has resurfaced, but what has happened to him is not pretty (to say the least), leading the team of above-ground researchers to suspect something is amiss on the Trieste. They recruit Clayton’s brother, a veterinarian named Luke – to descend to the bottom of the ocean and investigate.

What Luke finds eight miles below the surface of the Pacific beggars description, but the scenes of gory mayhem Cutter allows himself will be familiar to readers of his debut, The Troop. But whereas that story featured an ensemble cast of Boy Scouts trapped on an island alongside a particularly nasty biological antagonist, The Deep shares an affinity with The Damned in filtering its story through the perspective of a single male protagonist.

Cutter also ups the psychological aspect in this novel by supplying Luke with a backstory about a young son who disappeared in a public park one fall day during a game of hide-and-seek with his father. The incident costs Luke his marriage – his wife blames him for allowing their son to vanish – and the commingled guilt and post-traumatic stress are what simultaneously drive Luke and haunt him.

It is significant that both these novels have father figures at their hearts: fatherhood has clearly had an impact on both authors, and their fiction reflects the heightened emotions inherent in finding oneself in charge of a young person’s safety. Danny and Eddie forge a bond as father and stepson, in part because the young boy can also see Ash and knows that Danny is not crazy. Luke’s despair at the loss of his son is a manifestation of every parent’s terror that something dreadful and inexplicable might befall their child at any time, for any reason, and there is little or nothing they can do to prevent it. By comparison, the imagined horrors of spectral twins and unnameable creatures from the depths seem almost mild.

***

Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter will be appearing in Toronto tonight – Friday the 13th – as part of the Dark Side II: Highway of Horror Tour. Tonight’s event, sponsored by ELLE Man, takes place at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West, Toronto. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets $35.

31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 30: “The Albanian Virgin” by Alice Munro

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Open Secrets

Open_Secrets_Alice_Munro“What is fakery, what is authenticity? Which emotions and modes of behaviour and speech are honest and true, which pretended or pretentious? Or can they be separated?” These are questions Margaret Atwood has suggested recur throughout the work of Alice Munro, and they are questions that seem particularly applicable to “The Albanian Virgin,” one of the Nobel Prize winner’s most surprising stories.

The first thing one notices about “The Albanian Virgin” is its length. Clocking in at close to fifty pages, it is not a brief story – its length is typical of Munro’s later work. The stories following Friend of My Youth got longer and more complex; Munro began fracturing chronology more insistently and adopted techniques that almost resemble expressionism, particularly in the books from Runaway onward. Open Secrets, from 1994, is one of Munro’s most iconoclastic collections, and “The Albanian Virgin” is rare even among the stories in that book, in that much of it takes place outside of B.C. or the patch of land in southwestern Ontario that has come to be known as “Munro Country.”

Yet for all that is atypical about it, “The Albanian Virgin” nevertheless addresses Atwood’s questions in an insistent, almost defiant manner: whatever idiosyncrasies the story might possess, it is recognizably the work of Canada’s foremost practitioner of short fiction.

The story is narrated by a woman named Claire, who owns a not-too-successful bookshop in Victoria, B.C. One of Claire’s regular customers at the store is an imperious woman named Charlotte, whom another customer, a Notary Public, refers to as “the Duchess,” and who is described as “heavy, shapeless, but quick-moving,” with “a lot of glistening white hair, worn like a girl’s” and bracelets, “any number of them, heavy or slender, tarnished or bright.” The bracelets clank together “as if she wore hidden armor,” and some have “large, square stones, the color of toffee or blood.”

The details here are highly specific, and highly significant. The fact that Charlotte, who is obviously of a certain age, wears her hair “like a girl’s” indicates a desire to pass for someone younger; the bracelets are worn like “armor” and the stones have the appearance of “blood”: there is artifice here, and exoticism, but also a kind of defensiveness and more than a hint of violence.

This description of Charlotte occurs more than halfway through the narrative, and by this point we have been allowed to form an opinion of the woman based on her own story of travelling along the Dalmation Coast from Trieste in a steamer, whereupon she is taken captive by a local tribe who threaten to sell her into marriage. She is rescued by a kindly Franciscan priest who tells her that if she adopts the mantle of a Virgin she will be immune from being sold into sexual slavery: “If you become a Virgin, it will be all right,” the priest tells her. “But you must swear you will never go with a man. You must swear in front of witnesses.”

The method of narration Munro employs here is highly complex. Claire narrates the story in the first person, but Charlotte’s experience is related to her by the older woman from a hospital bed in Victoria. This does not become clear to the reader, however, until a good five pages into the story. Following a series of scenes related in the third person, detailing Charlotte’s experience as a captive in Maltsia e madhe (where the tribal members refer to her as “Lottar”), Claire reveals herself as the story’s narrator in an almost offhand aside: “I heard this story in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there.” Coming after a series of pages that drop us as readers into an unfamiliar setting, beginning in medias res and following the harrowing experiences of a kidnapped woman, this sudden shift seems startling, and it is entirely possible to miss the freighted implications in the description of Charlotte as “the sort of friend [Claire] had in [her] early days” in Victoria.

Claire originally moved to Victoria from London, Ontario, because it was the farthest place she could get to “without going out of the country.” In London, she lived with her husband Donald, a dermatologist. The description of Claire’s relationship with Donald is a classic example of why Cynthia Ozick famously referred to Munro as “our Chekhov”:

Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort has made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see that I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

Munro’s style is so straightforward, so deceptively simple, it is easy to miss how densely packed her writing is, and how much character information she is capable of getting into a very small space. The description of Donald as kind “in a cautious, impersonal way” is inspired, and the notion of Claire suffering “sabotage from within” resonates through the balance of the story.

Similarly, the narrative’s temporal shifts are so smoothly handled that they are almost unnoticeable: the story moves from Lottar in captivity to Claire in the narrative present (which is still, one notes, the past, i.e. Claire’s “early days” in Victoria), listening to Charlotte’s story in hospital, then to Claire in the narrative past, in London. These transitions are effected without any apparent effort, and the story never skips a beat.

A reader is liable to wonder how these disparate pieces fit together, but the structure Munro has devised in “The Albanian Virgin” is so tightly calibrated that every line, every word, every gesture and action has a place in the grand schema. The repeated image of a wooden crucifix, presented to two different characters in two radically different contexts, has enormous significance, and offers the key to unlock the story’s elliptical final scenes. And a simple declarative sentence, featuring six, monosyllabic words – “He was not shy in love” – has the effect of turning the story on a dime, altering the reader’s entire perspective in a way that is as staggering as it seems inevitable.

The connective tissue in “The Albanian Virgin” is the notion of women’s roles in the world, which may be Munro’s classic theme. Lottar in captivity, being prepared to be sold off as a wife against her will, is not all that far removed, we come to understand, from Claire in her relationship with Donald, who considers her “a wonderful woman, once [she] got a few problems under control.” Both Claire and Charlotte strive to find the authenticity of character Atwood alluded to, and both flee from what they perceive to be the fakery of artificially imposed strictures on their independence and freedom.

How much of what Charlotte tells Claire in the hospital is actually true, and how much is made up? In the end, this is unimportant. What is important is the symbolic connection these two women share in a story that is so carefully constructed, so utterly astounding in the apparent effortlessness of its execution that, as The Times commented of Munro’s work in general, it makes it “difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”

We all live in Alice Munro Country

October 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Alice_MunroShe has been called “our Chekhov,” and is routinely cited as one of the greatest living English-language writers. She has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for fiction, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two O. Henry Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. “Among writers themselves,” said Margaret Atwood, “her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

Today, those tones will be anything but hushed.

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the thirteenth woman out of 110 laureates. In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy calls Munro “a master of the contemporary short story.”

While the reaction from observers is likely to be raucous, the author’s own response was typically gracious and understated. A Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail quotes Munro as saying she is “amazed and very grateful.” Also typically, Munro goes on to shift the focus off herself: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Munro has been a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, and this year the betting house Ladbrokes ranked her second in odds, after Haruki Murakami.

Although the 82-year-old Ontario author has been remarkably consistent in her themes over the course of a career that spans four-and-a-half decades and fourteen books (excluding anthologies and best-of retrospectives), she has not remained stagnant as a writer. In a Quill & Quire review of her latest collection, Dear Life (2012), James Grainger points out:

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionistic form of storytelling.

Yet her subjects have remained the same: sexual politics, domestic violence – physical and, more often, psychological – and self-awareness in the lives of girls and women. “‘Dreariness of spirit’ is one of the great Munro enemies,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the 2009 volume My Best Stories:

Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people’s deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness, and perversity.

Quoted on the website NDTV, Munro herself claims, “There are no such things as big and little subjects. The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

In an interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about the influence of Southern American writers on her own sensibility:

The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Munro has, over the course of a truly remarkable career, incorporated that influence, and also transcended it. Her stories rank as some of the most subtle, provocative work produced not just in Canada, but internationally in the past forty years. Previous recent choices of Nobel laureates have caused controversy, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with knowledge of world literature arguing seriously that Alice Munro is undeserving of the honour.

The term “Alice Munro Country” is typically applied to a small patch of land in rural Ontario; today, the Swedish Academy has ensured that designation has a much broader connotation. We all live in Alice Munro Country. And we are all immeasurably better for it.

***

I had come to Victoria because it was the farthest place I could get to from London, Ontario, without going out of the country. In London, my husband, Donald, and I had rented a basement apartment in our house to a couple named Nelson and Sylvia. Nelson was an English major at the university and Sylvia was a nurse. Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort had made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

– “The Albanian Virgin,” by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

UPDATE: I’ve been taking some heat on social media for stating that Munro is the first Canadian Nobel laureate, since Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. For the record: I have never considered Bellow a Canadian author. He was raised and educated in the U.S., did all of his writing there, and is most closely associated with Chicago. He considered himself an American writer, as do I. But, for those who wish to argue, I acknowledge his place of birth as Canada, and have amended the above post accordingly.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 31: “The Beggar Maid” by Alice Munro

May 31, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

From Who Do You Think You Are?

When people say Alice Munro is capable of more depth, nuance, and character development in a single forty-page story than most authors can pull off in a 500-page novel, it’s stories like “The Beggar Maid” they are talking about. The centrepiece of Munro’s 1978 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection is so thematically dense, so emotionally resonant, so linguistically inventive it’s almost difficult to countenance. “The Beggar Maid” is the story of Rose, a young woman from a working-class family in the small Ontario town of Hanratty, who goes off to university on a scholarship and ends up in a romance with Patrick Blatchford, the wealthy scion of a family that owns a chain of British Columbia department stores. Munro’s story addresses heavy themes – class, sex, identity – but does so in a seemingly effortless manner.

After a chance meeting in the university library where Rose works, she and Patrick fall into a love affair, which proves troublesome because, although they are both loath to admit it, their differing economic and social backgrounds are a locus of conflict. The first indication of friction occurs in the story’s opening paragraph: Rose admits to being nervous about Patrick’s sophistication after he becomes agitated when one of her friends mispronounces the name Metternich. When the couple visits Patrick’s family on Vancouver Island, Rose feels utterly inadequate. She buys a “fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored,” which she thinks is elegant enough, but concludes that it resembles “a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up.” Patrick’s mother displays “affront, disapproval, dismay” in Rose’s presence, and his sisters evince a haughty insouciance:

At an earlier meal they had questioned Rose.

“Do you ride?”

“No.”

“Do you sail?”

“No.”

“Play tennis? Play golf? Play badminton?”

“No. No. No.”

“Perhaps she is an intellectual genius, like Patrick.”

The Blatchford house is a sprawling Tudor mansion on a half-acre of land, a stark contrast to Rose’s own humble origins. She takes Patrick home to Hanratty to meet her stepmother, Flo, and the experience is “just as bad as she thought it would be”:

Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages which were a special present from Billy Pope, from the butcher shop. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins.

The juxtaposition of the Blatchfords’ supercilious politesse with Flo’s small-town kitsch lends the story a mordantly humorous aspect, but also highlights the degree to which Rose is caught between conflicting ideas of what she should be. Rose clings to Patrick because he represents something greater than even the highest of Hanratty’s aspirations: “She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweler’s; people would say she had done well.” And yet Rose has difficulty admitting to herself that Patrick’s lack of humour and sexual reticence fail to enthrall her.

She is further troubled by her landlady, Dr. Henshawe, a university professor who feels that Rose should be devoting herself to her studies rather than setting herself up for the traditional female roles of wife and mother:

“The future will be wide open, for women. You must concentrate on languages. You must take courses in political science. And economics. Perhaps you could get a job on the paper for the summer. I have friends there.”

Rose was frightened at the idea of working on a paper, and she hated the introductory economics course; she was looking for a way of dropping it. It was dangerous to mention things to Dr. Henshawe.

What the citizens of Hanratty have in common with Patrick and Dr. Henshawe is a desire to make Rose over in their own image, to force her to conform to the role they feel she should play, rather than allow her the freedom to chart her own path. Patrick compares Rose to the Beggar Maid in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s painting, with all the chivalric romance that association entails. But this is not the conception Rose has of herself. She is a much more active agent than the other characters in the story will give her credit for being.

The American and U.K. editions of Munro’s book are called “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Rose and Flo,” which is more romantic and lyrical than the frankly acerbic Canadian title. But it is also less resonant. “The Beggar Maid” is an ironic title for this story, because Rose implicitly disavows the association with the painting when Patrick brings it up. The Canadian title, by contrast, allows for a greater field of implication as Rose is buffeted between various characters with competing interests and conflicting ideas about what is best for her. There are critics who suggest that this collection of linked stories is actually one of only two novels Munro has written (the other being Lives of Girls and Women). I prefer to think of “The Beggar Maid” as a story that is novelistic in its structure and execution, but fully able to stand on its own as a case study of a woman faced with the persistent and troubling question, Who do you think you are?

31 Days of Stories turns five

April 30, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

It’s a bit daunting to think that this marks the fifth year I’ve launched into a month of short-story posts. The first, in 2008, was held in August, to coincide with the Canadian Notes & Queries/The New Quarterly Salon des Refusés of writers excluded from The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories.

The idea was straightforward: each day of the month, I would select and write about one short story. By month’s end, I would cover as close to thirty-one stories as possible. (One story per day is always the goal, but it’s also important to be realistic about time pressures, other commitments, etc.) In the initial conception, I wanted to focus on the breadth of short fiction since the turn of the 20th century; subsequent iterations of this project have reached back even further, and have covered stories from Canada, the United States, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere.

If the idea was straightforward, it became clear quite quickly that the execution would be anything but. Selecting stories, reading (or rereading) them, and trying to come up with something somewhat cogent and (hopefully) engaging to say about them on a tight timeframe proved challenging, but people seemed to enjoy the results of this process. (Indeed, the annual 31 Days of Stories is one of the most trafficked sections of TSR.)

So, once again charging in where angels fear to tread, I’m going to pledge to post on one story per day during May 2012. (The story month moved from August to May in 2010 as a means of piggybacking on Dan Wickett’s annual online celebration.)

Inevitably, there will be some overlap in authors, because it’s my damn site, and I’m the one doing the choosing. Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and James Joyce, all 31 Days of Stories alumni, will no doubt be making repeat appearances over the coming weeks. (I’ve often thought I could devote the middle two weeks of this annual endeavour to each of the fifteen stories in Dubliners to obviate the need to choose from among them: they’re all that good.) But, we’ll try to mix it up a bit, to include a healthy serving of stories in translation, and hopefully to spotlight some surprising or overlooked stories that deserve a wider audience.

Things kick off tomorrow, and continue throughout the month. Join me?

(The Short Story Month banner is by designer Steven Seighman.)

Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 24, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Despite receiving the Giller Prize (twice), the Governor General’s Award (three times), the Man Booker International Prize, the Trillium Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, the O. Henry Award, the Marian Engle Award, and countless others, Alice Munro has been the victim of censorship in her native country, most frequently for her 1971 classic, Lives of Girls and Women. In 1979, the Huron County school board demanded that Munro’s book be removed from the reading lists for Grade 12 and 13 students. In their book Interpreting Censorship in Canada, Allan C. Hutchinson and Klaus Petersen write, “The Catholic Women’s League in the town of Knightsbridge, Huron County, was concerned about ‘gutter talk and blasphemy'” in the book. In 1982, parents in Toronto petitioned to have the collection stricken from the high school curriculum for its “language and philosophy.” Lives of Girls and Women has faced similar attacks across the country since its publication.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Munro is a feminist writer, but her feminism is subversive, and makes many readers uncomfortable in the way it questions the established social order, particularly where matters of sexuality are concerned. In her essay “Reading Female Sexual Desire in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women,” Sue Thomas writes:

To adapt Del’s real­ization of a mature aesthetic, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” there are discordant cracks in the “linoleum” of Del’s account of her sexual desire for Garnet French. The “linoleum” of Del’s representations of self and oth­ers is, on one level, the familiar pattern of intelligibility that domesticates the “deep caves” … of personality and character, facilitating a durable sense of identity and structuring interaction with others. The cracks in the linoleum of Del’s representations of her sexual desire – signaled by Munro through allusion, metaphor, and the surfacing of the uncanny – expose “deep caves” of ambiguity and complexity in Del’s sexuality and her relationship with her mother.

Female sexuality – especially when tinged with “ambiguity and complexity” – makes many readers uncomfortable. The persistent challenges to this suite of stories testify to Munro’s determination to confront this ambiguity and complexity in a direct and unsentimental way.

***

From “Princess Ida”:

The older brother sometimes brought her candy, from Town. He shaved at the kitchen table, a mirror propped against the lamp. He was vain, she thought, he had a moustache, and he got letters from girls which he never answered, but left lying around where anybody could read them. My mother appeared to hold this against him. “I have no illusions about him,” she said, “though I guess he was no different from most.” He lived in New Westminster now, and worked on a ferryboat. The other brother lived in the States. At Christmas they sent cards, and she sent cards to them. They never wrote letters, nor did she.

It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.

What with? But my mother would never go beyond that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood. So I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother a fat Indian yelped and pranced about her. But she had escaped, after all, unscalped, unburnt. Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.

Trillium shortlist emphasizes books by women

June 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The shortlist for the 23rd annual Trillium Book Award has been announced, and fully six of the seven nominated titles are by women. This is in stark contrast to the Charles Taylor Prize earlier this year, which featured four middle-aged white dudes as nominees. (One of those white dudes, Ian Brown, who went on to win the Charles Taylor Prize, is the lone male on the Trillium list.) The nominated books tilt toward established houses, and with the exception of Alexandra Legatt and TSR fave Emily Schultz, all the shortlisted authors are established names.

The shortlist is as follows:

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon (Random House Canada)
Alexandra Leggat, Animal (Anvil Press)
Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (McClelland & Stewart)
Emily Schultz, Heaven is Small (House of Anansi Press)
Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)

Only two small presses – Anvil and Coach House – are represented; where the big guns are concerned, M&S is the clear winner with three nominations out of seven.

The full lists of nominees, including French language and poetry nominees, is online here.

The prize, which is administered by the Ontario Media Development Corporation and is open to Ontario residents, carries with it a none-too-shabby purse of $20,000. A public reading by shortlisted authors will take place on June 23 at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, and the winners will be announced on June 24.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 28: “Fiction” by Alice Munro

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Too Much Happiness

It’s become clichéd to call Alice Munro Canada’s Chekhov, but in her later period especially, she makes a strong case for another comparison: she’s our Henry James. The emotional involutions of her story “Fiction” are arguably as subtle and carefully constructed as those of James in his final novel, The Golden Bowl. And whereas James took close to 600 pages to unfold his narrative, Munro is able to deploy similarly complex psychological shifts in the space of a scant 30 pages.

The two key characters in “Fiction” are Joyce, a music teacher in Rough River, B.C., and Christie O’Dell, one of her students. Christie, who as a young girl went by Christine, is the daughter of Edie, who works as an apprentice to Jon, Joyce’s husband. Jon restores furniture in the shed behind the couple’s house; he agrees to take on an apprentice under the auspices of a government program that provides funds for students learning a trade: “At first he hadn’t been willing, but Joyce had talked him into it. She believed they had an obligation to society.”

This is the first ironic turn of the screw in Munro’s story: it is Joyce who convinces her husband to take part in the government initiative that results in him hiring Edie, with whom he gradually falls in love. Although “falling in love” is a loaded term, one that Munro exposes for its linguistic infelicity:

Falling. That suggests some time span, a moment or second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is. No way this could be seen as probable or possible, unless you think of a blow between the eyes, a sudden calamity. The stroke of fate that leaves a man a cripple, the wicked joke that turns clear eyes into blind stones.

Indeed, it is language that first gives Joyce the idea that her husband has fallen in love with his apprentice, who is a reformed alcoholic. One day Jon suggests that Joyce should refrain from leaving wine bottles on the kitchen table:

“When does she get to examine our kitchen table?”

“She has to go through to the toilet. She can’t be expected to piss in the bush.”

“I really don’t see what business –”

“And sometimes she comes in and makes a couple of sandwiches for us –”

“So? It’s my kitchen. Ours.”

“It’s just that she feels so threatened by the booze. She’s still pretty fragile. It’s a thing that you and I can’t understand.”

Threatened. Booze. Fragile.

What words were these for Jon to use?

It is language that allows Joyce to comprehend the way the relationship between her husband and his apprentice has changed; she does not remark on the domesticity implicit in Edie making sandwiches for herself and Jon in Joyce’s kitchen.

Following her discovery, Joyce moves into an apartment and begins to plot her revenge. Edie’s daughter is a violinist in Joyce’s music class; if Joyce schedules a recital at the school, she thinks, her ex-husband and the girl’s mother will have to attend as a couple, and Jon would see Joyce “in command rather than moping and suicidal.” She would achieve “something she couldn’t define but couldn’t stop herself hoping for”: in short, she would remind her ex-husband of all the things he had lost by shuffling her off to the side in favour of Edie. The fact that she is using Edie’s daughter as a pawn in her scheme to get back at her erstwhile husband never once enters her mind. In the event, Jon and Edie do not attend the recital.

So ends the first part of the story, but Munro is by no means finished turning the screws of her plot. Years pass, and Joyce is remarried to Matt, who has two previous wives, including one – Sally – whose “brain was damaged in a car accident at the age of twenty-nine.” Joyce and Matt host a party during which Joyce spies a woman in “a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie or a nightie, and a severe but low-necked little black jacket.” Joyce does not recognize this woman, but takes “an instant dislike to her.”

Later, Joyce passes a bookstore and notices a book in the window and a poster featuring the woman’s face. Her name is Christie O’Dell and her book is called How Are We to Live. On impulse, Joyce buys a copy and, in another instance of Munro at her most ironic and slyly witty, is dismayed to discover that it is not a novel, but a book of stories:

This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

Despite her reservations, Joyce delves into the book and is surprised to discover that one of the stories is about a young girl whose mother, an alcoholic, takes up with the husband of her music teacher. Joyce assumes that the music teacher will be cast as the villain, and is surprised to find that the protagonist of the story worships her teacher as a source of inspiration. The protagonist of Christie’s fiction allows Joyce to come to an epiphanic revelation about the nature of human interactions: “It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness – however temporary, however flimsy – of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”

There is yet another twist to Munro’s tale, which it would be criminal to spoil for those who have not yet encountered it. Suffice it to say that Munro’s story captures the shifting spectrum of human expectations and desires as if in amber; her absolute control over her story’s movement is masterful, and her ability to subtly convey the shifting perceptions of her protagonist is nothing short of astounding. After she published The View from Castle Rock in 2006, Munro intimated that she would retire. Not only were the rumours of Munro’s retirement greatly exaggerated, “Fiction” stands as testament to the fact that in her late career, the most recent winner of the International Man Booker Prize is as powerful and potent a storyteller as we have in English today.

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

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