The Poser’s Guide to Alice Munro: six tips for owning any conversation about Canada’s first literary Nobel laureate
Three Gillers, three Governor Generals and a Man Booker later, Canada’s literary darling has finally snagged the big one: the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you’ve been reading Munro short stories for years, now is your chance to impress friends and co-workers with your literary expertise. If not, get reading! Or, fudge your way through the next month’s conversations with the following helpful tips.
1. When asked your opinion on any particular Munro story
Memorize the universal Munro plot, which tends to be some version of the following (courtesy of The Corrections author and Munro super-fan Jonathan Franzen):
A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money, her mother is sickly or dead, her father is a schoolteacher whose second wife is problematic, and the girl, as soon as she can, escapes from the hinterland by way of a scholarship or some decisive self-interested act. She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids, and is far from blameless in the breakup of her marriage. She may have success as an actress or a writer or a TV personality; she has romantic adventures. When, inevitably, she returns to Ontario, she finds the landscape of her youth unsettlingly altered. Although she was the one who abandoned the place, it’s a great blow to her narcissism that she isn’t warmly welcomed back — that the world of her youth, with its older-fashioned manners and mores, now sits in judgment on the modern choices she has made. Simply by trying to survive as a whole and independent person, she has incurred painful losses and dislocations; she has caused harm.
2. When you hear Munro compared to Chekhov
Say: “Well that’s original.”
3. When discussing the merits of short vs. long fiction
Option 1: borrow once again from Franzen and blithely opine that short stories are awesome because they “leave the writer no place to hide” and “resist the historical impulse that makes so many contemporary novels feel fugitive or cadaverous.” Option 2: stir up some controversy by appropriating former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath’s comparison between short story writers and “people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range.”
4. When a hater calls Munro a “provincial writer” because her stories are set in small towns
Consider verbally plagiarizing author Lorrie Moore’s characterization of Munro as a “witty and cruel (that is, unblinking) and painterly” writer who “seems over and over again to be writing a kind of ghost story.” You may also want to refer to Munro’s small-town Ontario settings—Jubilee, Hanratty and Carstairs—as microcosms of something or other. Under no circumstances should you claim to have visited any of these places, though. They are all fictional.
5. When anyone bemoans the fact that Munro is now retired
Smile wryly and shake your head. Munro has alluded to retirement more than once in the past couple decades, and then gone on to produce further great works.