Prizes

Alice Munro, First Nobel Laureate of the MFA Program

By posted at 6:00 am on October 23, 2013 2

coverAlice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class.  (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop.

covercoverWhen I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love.

We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves.

coverAs a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames…us[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction:

Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things.  Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people.  Think, he told her.  What is the important thing?  What do you want us to pay attention to?  Think.

Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it.  Georgia herself thought it was a fake.  She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story.  The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.

Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point.

As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories.  If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty.

In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place.

Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.





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2 Responses to “Alice Munro, First Nobel Laureate of the MFA Program”

  1. D G Myers
    at 10:07 am on October 23, 2013

    Professor Atwell’s admittedly short summary distorts my views in The Elephants Teach. I would urge her to reread pp. 156–57 wherein I describe the tendency of creative writing workshops “to tighten criticism to an instrumentalist or even vocationalist function, assisting the practice of contemporary writing.” Wallace Stegner, Paul Engle, and Karl Shapiro are quoted in support. The growing interest in literary technique was unavoidable; it grew out of “literature’s being treated as an end in itself.”

  2. Friday Links | Writing and Rambling
    at 9:06 am on October 25, 2013

    […] Alice Munro, First Nobel Laureate of the MFA Program – An interesting look at how the author’s work has become the go-to example for teaching how to write. […]

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