Excerpted from Shelf-Love, a Kindle Single about Alice Munro by Ben Dolnick, out now from Amazon.
The strange thing—the thing I find almost unbelievable, in retrospect—is that I once thought I disliked Alice Munro. Here’s the sum total of what I knew about her when I formed this opinion:
- She often published stories in The New Yorker, and possibly wrote nothing but stories.
- Many of her book titles featured words like Love and Women.
- She was Canadian.
- Her book covers were illustrated with moody, purplish-tinted scenes of women lounging on beds or gazing thoughtfully out windows.
- The first page of the first story in the only book of hers I owned described a woman with teeth “crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.”
I bring this up not merely to demonstrate my tendency toward under-informed and over-fervent dismissals, but also because if I’m going to have any success in arguing that the work of Alice Munro can make your life tangibly happier and better, I need first to address the various reasons you might have for dismissing her.
There is necessarily, in the life of any reader, a roster of authors—like the players in suits at the end of a basketball team’s bench—whose services you’ve decided you can do without. For you it might be J.M. Coetzee, or Salman Rushdie, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Hilary Mantel. You know these authors have their devotees, and you’re willing to accept that they might, theoretically, be capable of providing you with some slight pleasure, but an aura, or a flotsam-y list of half-impressions has served to convince you that your limited time as a reader would be more profitably spent elsewhere.
For those who’ve relegated Alice Munro to their personal bench-ends, the most frequently articulated reason seems to be that she’s a short-story writer. About half of the time I mention her name, whomever I’m talking to will say—often in a tone politely cleansed of judgment—something like, “Oh, she writes short stories, right?” (This is similar, perhaps, to the tone in which I say, “Oh, they serve small plates, right?” when someone suggests eating at a tapas restaurant.)
Beginning in middle school, the era of wide-margined, Bible-paged anthologies, short stories develop unpromising associations—and these associations often linger through college, when stories become the things distributed in Xeroxes missing entire pages of line-endings. They’re the faintly antique little samples that teachers distribute when they haven’t got the time or the energy for something more substantial. They’re the apprentice work with which an aspiring writer busies himself while, in his innermost depths, the real work—a novel—ferments.
And then, once you’re out of school, when a promising review or an enticing book cover does vault you past your lingering misgivings, the experience of reading a short story collection will often serve to assure you that you needn’t have overcome your prejudices in the first place.
For a long time, since story collections look almost precisely like novels, I presumed that they were meant to be enjoyed in the same way as novels. So, on the summer vacations during which I intended to accumulate new favorite writers just as determinedly as someone else might intend to fall in love, I’d drop a story collection in my beach-bag and spread out my towel and lay uncomfortably on my stomach, propped up by my elbows, wearing or not wearing sunglasses, considering moving farther from the kids playing Kadima … and eventually I’d manage to make some headway in the first story and it would actually be pretty good. A nice peppy voice, an odd and compelling plot; wow, maybe this’ll really be the one. Before too long I’d feel the end coming—plot tumblers engaging, lyrical language crescendoing—and sure enough, the words on the next page would stop half-way down. Whew! Good story.
But it would only have been 15 minutes.
So I’d begin the next one. And, you know what, it just didn’t seem to be as good. Or maybe the first one was still in my head, that peppy voice drowning out the quieter music of this new narrator. So I’d hurry to the end and try the next one, eager to get back the happy regard for the author I felt during the first story. But a couple of pages in I’d realize that I’d read the same paragraph three times (I’d realize too that my legs were being bitten by some type of sand-insect) and I’d put the collection down and now it would be like some half-botched home improvement project: I’d dread going back to the book because I’d know I really ought to start back at story two and pay it proper attention, but I’d want to skip ahead to story four, though I knew the unfinished dangling-ness of stories two and three would continue to rankle me.
I’d wonder if there were any novels on the shelves back at the beach house.
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