Alice Munro retiring from writing…again

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With this entry, we introduce you to Paul Graham who we hope to hear from on a regular basis on the Book Club pages and at All In. Paul teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University and is a short-fiction and non-fiction writer. I asked Paul to pick up the thread on Alice Munro’s recently announced “retirement” from writing, which came to my attention through this NY Times piece. Munro’s work seems to have a special resonance for readers in this neck of the woods–on both sides of the border. –Ellen

The literary world is abuzz over Alice Munro’s announced “retirement” from writing at 81—the second time, at least, that she’s said so, and perhaps this time it will stick. In many ways, Munro is Canadian literary fiction. She is also a writer of importance to the North Country, and not because of mere geography. So many of the stories she’s set in fictional Ontario towns bear a strong resemblance to many of our towns and villages, as do the people in them.

The landscape, the grit and pace of this life, the reticence and desperation and surprising shocks of joy: she knows just how we live. Other writers will continue to tell such stories, but Munro’s short fiction, especially from her middle period, shine a light on lives that most of the world just isn’t very good at, or interested in, describing.

In his New York Times essay, Bill McGrath repeated a line often used to describe Munro, noting that she has been called “our Chekov.”  To name a contemporary author our version of the 19th century Russian literary master is, in the end,  an almost mindlessly easy compliment to give. It speaks for itself because Chekhov stands without comparison.

Chekhov is a far more difficult writer than Munro, but because of their approach to human conflict, to “mutual unintelligibility and frustration,” as Chekhov called it, neither are writers for the very young or the very hurried. Their stories are antithetical in every way to the extremity and lack of subtlety in our contemporary culture.

In making the comparison we praise Alice Munro’s humanity. We praise, as well, the clarity of her prose. Like Chekhov, Munro does not play tricks. She does not overwrite. She does not hide behind elaborate conceits or irony (at least not often, and never  very much). She finds the small details that signify an entire life. She is munificent, spinning out entire lives of longing and searching and resolution in a confined space. She has accomplished a rare feat in publishing: a world class writer has made herself so on the short story, which has long been the poor brother to the novel and likely always will be.

alicemunro7“Retiring” from writing strikes some as odd. Since writing seems to demand no physical effort (but it does) and can be performed anywhere (but it can’t), one might think a writer can continue until the very end. And some have done exactly that, writing long past the time when they’d run out of things to say, or long after they’d lost the sense of urgency that makes prose vivid. The result can be wheezing, self-referential, gassy. At best such prose feels dutiful, or resigned. I won’t name any names.

Not so for Munro’s stories. Dear Life is as lucid and perceptive a collection as Munro has ever written, which is perhaps why some readers are scratching their heads at the news. She leaves us, as the old cliché goes, wanting more, but with the consolation that her life’s work is as deep and knowing as we are likely to find for a long time. It’s a testament to her respect for the art, and for the places and people in her stories: people like us.

–Paul Graham, Canton, NY