The Literary Imagination of Alice Munroe

By Tom Ue

Back in 2008, in an article for The Underground UTSC’s Official Student Paper, I responded to a review of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories that was published in The Calgary Herald. In it, Naomi Lakritz criticized Munro’s stories for being “choked with trivial details,” although these stories lead readers nowhere. “Alice Munro’s world is unremittingly grey,” wrote Lakritz: “It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.”

Quill & Quire’s Derek Weiler dismissed Lakritz’s claims, “it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before.” Both Weiler’s response and Lakritz’s review provoked heated debate amongst readers of Quill & Quire’s online forum. One reader, “Charles,” claims: “You can agree or not with the opinion of Naomi Lakritz, but to her credit she’s laid out a certain amount of analysis of the book.”

Certainly, Lakritz’s use of the term “Aargghh” in response to samples of Munro’s dialogue does not, in the opinion of the present writer back in 2008 or today, require much “la[ying] out” or fall under the category of literary “analysis.” From Lakritz’s review, one would not have gathered that she was describing an over 500-paged collection that anthologizes some of the Canadian writer’s best works—including “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the story from which Sarah Polley’s 2007 Academy Award-nominated film Away from Her was adapted, and “Runaway,” the title story from the 2004 collection. In fact, Lakritz’s review does not even refer to Margaret Atwood’s insightful introduction to the collection, an essay published in The Guardian. According to Atwood, “Munro’s stories abound in such questionable seekers and well-fingered ploys. But they abound also in such insights: within any story, within any human being, there may be a dangerous treasure, a priceless ruby. A heart’s desire.”

Munro’s career has been a long and prestigious one. Since her 1968 Governor General’s Award-winning début, Dance of the Happy Shades, she has redefined the short story form, using the genre to explore issues of maternity, love, and loss. Regarding Runaway, which won the Giller Prize over Miriam Toews’ outstanding novel A Complicated KindnessVanity Fair writes: “The great Alice Munro proves again why short-story writers bow down to her.” This sentiment was shared by Time magazine’s Mona Simpson, who declares that Munro deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is a pleasure to return to this debate about literariness and the short story form, and to celebrate the Nobel Prize for Literature for Munro, one of the most generous writers of our time, and one who has contributed significantly to the short story form. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” Victorian writer George MacDonald tells authors: “The best thing you can do for your fellow [i.e. reader], next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” Perhaps, we should, as MacDonald suggests, think more carefully and critically about what we read, and see what things stories like Munro’s awaken for us.

An early version of this entry was published as “Recent Review of Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories Sparks Online Feud.” The Underground UTSC’s Official Student Paper 28.05 (2008): 11. Print.

Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing, and Oscar Wilde. Ue has taught at University College London. He was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at Yale University, and the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer, and he has held an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship. He has contributed essays on Thomas Hardy, Gissing, Wilde, and with John James, Sherwood Anderson and James Cameron.

Although Ue specializes in nineteenth-century literature, he cares deeply about, and writes on, many aspects of intellectual history. His work has appeared in a number of journals including the Journal of Gender StudiesThe Gissing JournalNew Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative WritingShakespeare Bulletin, and Variants: The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship, and he contributes to Film International and the TLS. He is editor of World Film Locations: Toronto (Intellect Books, 2014), which coincides with the city’s 180th anniversary, and he has published widely on Sherlock Holmes. He is concurrently at work on a shorter piece on photography and phonography and their impact on the forms of late-Victorian and Edwardian writing. This is an opportunity to do some preliminary work towards a monograph on legal theory and the British novel in the nineteenth century.

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