By Sarah Sullivan
So, when it was announced last month that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for Literature I felt, well, guilty. What’s wrong with me, an ardent reader and wordsmith enthusiast, that I can’t seem to generate much excitement for the cropped narrative? I’ve spent many hours over the past month examining my obvious deficits in regard to this matter and here are my conclusions.
I’m intimidated by short stories. While some readers may view short stories as the inferior younger sibling to the more mature novel, I feel just the opposite. To me, a finely crafted short story represents the pinnacle of literary achievement. Let’s face it, a full length book can squander page after page trying to depict a place, flesh out a character or describe a point of view. Meanwhile, the short story, in it’s reverence for time, must offer up little epiphanies on nearly every page. While a great novel seems like the result of skillful technique that one can almost observe in the making, a superior short story is like magic, suddenly springing fully formed onto the page. How do you do that?
I don’t always get short stories. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying the inherent tension in a good Edgar Allen Poe tale or the quiet profundity of an E.B. White story. But what about, for instance, all those stories in The New Yorker? How often have I laid down that venerable journal and thought to myself “What was that all about?” Or worse yet, after thoroughly enjoying what I thought was a simple fictive, a review reveals a story ripe with allegory, allusions and personifications entirely lost on me, describing the wheat field as a metaphor for the life cycle and the deer as a symbol of one man’s complicated relationship with his lover. Sometimes I nod my head thinking “Yes, I do see that” and other times I think “Really? Couldn’t the deer just be a deer?” Probably not.
Lengthy books provide an extended escape. I’ll be honest, when it comes to reading I’m not always in it for the intellectual stimulation. I adore taking refuge in an alternate time or place that a savory tome offers. Who hasn’t experienced the delicious sense of loss that accompanies the end of a great novel or the yearning to be part of the lovable dysfunctional family with whom you’ve just spent days or weeks getting acquainted. If I really love a short story it’s too short! I’m sad that it’s over so quickly. Why set myself up for that kind of heartache and disappointment?
Before you judge me too harshly, let me now reveal that despite my fears and hesitations and with the greatest reverence for the Nobel Prize Committee, I have also spent the past month binge reading Alice Munro. Those of you familiar with Munro’s writing will be not be at all surprised to learn that Munro was a revelation to me.
I may not be a total convert, but Ms. Munro certainly went a long way in challenging my biases. Her writing proves that a short story can do just as much as a novel in it’s depth of scope, richness of character and connection to place. And if you become particularly enamored of one character or setting, never fear, he, she or it will likely make a return appearance in a subsequent story.
I hesitate to confine Munro’s writing style to the short story genre since her stories read more like novellas, giving the reader time to become fully in sync with the easy elegance of the author’s rhythmic prose. Munro writes beautifully about ordinary people with ordinary lives. Yet through her characters, Munro offers the reader extraordinary revelations about universal themes in the human experience.
Of course, reading Munro does nothing to alleviate my intimidation of the short story. In its lyrical simplicity, Munro’s writing is magic and I don’t now how she does that. I still have some of her work left to read but for once, I’m looking forward to cuddling up with some short stories eager to see what other tricks Alice Munro has up her sleeve.