Alice Munro's Writerly Wisdom: Short Stories Aren't Small Stories

By Joe Fassler

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, we heard the word “small” a lot. Her stories unfold in small-town backwaters; they tend to hinge on small, internal moments; the story form she works in is comparatively small (compared to the novel). In his essay for this series, Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk, contests Munro’s popular reputation as a mere chronicler of bounded, fiercely quiet lives. Her stories, Minor writes, achieve their emotional wallop because they’re global as well as local. An explicit focus of Munro’s work for the past three decades has been the ways history and global forces impact our most intimate moments. For Minor, this revelation explodes the possibilities of what the short story can do and be. 

Praying Drunk is ostensibly a collection of stories—but a disclaimer on the first page warns against reading out of order, or sampling your way through. That’s because nothing here is contained, the way a hit single on a record stands alone—characters recur, themes and forms are deepened and visited again, moments glimpsed earlier come back with haunting force. These stories refuse to stay inside themselves. A narrator traces his uncle’s suicide beyond his disfiguring accident, to the Kentucky landscape he was raised in, to the viciousness of Christopher Columbus and out towards the Big Bang. A badly bullied school-kid learns to see a broader legacy of violence beyond his personal torment, handed from fathers to sons who become brutalizing fathers. Even the book’s title is taken from an Andrew Hudgins poem that resonates throughout—a reminder that nothing stands entirely on its own.

Kyle Minor’s first book of stories, In the Devil’s Territory, was published in 2008. His fiction has won the Iowa Review Prize and appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Best American Non-Required Reading and Best American Mystery Stories. His promotional shot glasses—which have “Praying Drunk” inscribed on them—have been featured in The Los Angeles Times.


Kyle Minor: Alice Munro built her reputation as a writer on six early collections of short stories set mostly in rural Ontario. There is much to recommend these early books, and one of them, The Beggar Maid, is an early and excellent forerunner of the novel-in-stories boom we are still enjoying.

But something special happened in Munro’s seventh story collection, Friend of My Youth, which was published in 1990, 22 years after her first, and which signaled a mid-to-late career flowering of talent and experiment—rivaled only by the extraordinary decade-long run of masterful novels Philip Roth began to publish around the same time. Like Roth, Munro was in the process of taking all the material she had spent a lifetime mining by way of the exceedingly personal, the story turned resolutely inward, and turning it in a new, public direction, outward, stretching her tiny canvas until it covered the shape of the world.

The first salvo was fired in the title story, which begins like so many Munro stories—which is to say, quietly.

I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same. The dream stopped, I suppose because it was too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness.

Soon, more familiar details are revealed. The mother lived a rather cloistered life in the Ottawa Valley, and boarded as a young woman in a “black board house with its paralytic Sundays and coal-oil lamps and primitive notions,” and, worst of all, its onerous rules, an inheritance from the Reformed Presbyterians, sometimes known locally as the Cameronians,  “some freak religion from Scotland,” the sect to which the owners of the house belonged.

The mother was herself Anglican, so the world of the house was somewhat unfamiliar to her, but not too unfamiliar. Rural Ontario was no Studio 54. She integrated herself into the house nicely and got close enough to see the trouble present and past: the death of the father, the cancer of the sister, the strange love triangle that developed among the sisters and the workingman from Scotland hired before the father’s death, the scandalous marriage, and worst of all the stillbirths and miscarriages seen locally as punishments, as “God rewarded lust with dead babies, idiots, harelips and withered limbs and clubfeet.”

Does it get worse from there? It does, and I’m reluctant to reveal all the story’s secrets for fear of robbing you of its pleasures. But there’s no way to talk about the story without revealing its biggest surprise, its most shocking pleasure. 

“Yes, it’s my mother I’m thinking of,” the narrator writes in the penultimate paragraph, just before the white space. She’s had us thinking of her mother story-long, “my mother as she was in those dreams, saying, It’s nothing, just this little tremor, saying with such astonishing lighthearted forgiveness, Oh, I knew you’d come someday . . .”

Those sentences are more or less the register in which most of the story is told, the register of repression, of understatement, of avoidance. And yet the speaker knows that there is a ferocity at its center. In the story’s final paragraph, she finally connects it, logically but surprisingly, to an origin story removed from the present story not only by centuries but also by an ocean:

The Cameronians, I have discovered, are or were an uncompromising remnant of the Covenanters—those Scots who in the seventeenth century bound themselves, with God, to resist prayer books, bishops, any taint of popery or interference by the King. Their name comes from Richard Cameron, an outlawed, or “field,” preacher, soon cut down. The Cameronians—for a long time they have preferred to be called the Reformed Presbyterians—went into battle singing the seventy-fourth and seventy-eighth Psalms. They hacked the haughty Bishop of St. Andrews to death on the highway and rode their horses over his body. One of their ministers, in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world.

And of course this is the larger true thing the story has become in memory for the speaker. In an earlier Munro story, the ending might have come sooner, in the neighborhood of sentences that now appear a few pages before what is now the ending, such as: “My mother had grown up in a time and a place where sex was a dark undertaking for women. She knew that you could die of it. So she honored the decency, the prudery, the frigidity, that might protect you.”

But Munro’s choice to end the story with the “Cameronians” paragraph means that the speaker—and, by extension, the writer—has begun to see her story as more than merely a story about one person’s local situation. The world of the story, the house in rural Ontario, all these people, all their social codes, and all their manufactured trouble are manifestations of the sweep and purl of history. Because no white people in Ontario came from Ontario. They came from some other place in Europe, and the people who live in the house at center of this story came from Scotland, and although perhaps almost all of them have forgotten in a daily way the seventeenth century story of the Cameronians, that story forms the baseline for understanding everything about why they do what they do to one another, why they think how they think, why they are who they are, and why such ferocity lies unexplained in the way it does, just beneath the surface of daily life. The story of the Cameronians is origin story and inheritance, and it is only the brevity of memory that attends to the human lifespan that causes people in a community to forget who they are because of who they were, and it takes a special teller to reframe it. I’d daresay it’s a revolutionary reframing, because why, one might ask, ought I continue in all the conditions of my life, in all my choices, to be beholden to the power of the seventeenth century minister who, while rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world?

In this remarkable paragraph, Alice Munro also announces the obliteration of her preceding project—the shapely personal short story, bound up in the literary implicit. Through her next four books, the best of her career (Friend of My Youth, Open Secrets, The Love of a Good Woman, and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) she will pursue a ground-shaking new project, in which the personal story is shown to be evidence of a much larger, public story. These new stories often required Munro to write longer, to invent new forms into which to pour her stories, and to create new kinds of speakers (notably, in “Meneseteung,” another story in Friend of My Youth, a kind of first-person imagined omniscience that again eerily prefigures Roth, whose narrator in American Pastoral and The Human Stain is in wicked parallel with Munro’s, and extends her experiment to its logical extreme.)

I love the way Munro avoids the fallacy endemic to the contemporary short story that the domestic is a cloistered domestic, rather than having an acquaintance with the idea, as the fictional Herman Roth posited in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, that history is everything that happens everywhere. Whatever happens in the kitchen, no less than whatever happens at sea or in the palace or on the battlefield, is part of history’s grand march, and if to its participants it is the most important thing in the world, as it should be (because each of us gets only one life upon which to perform our story), then the story should find a way to rightly foreground that awful grandeur. (Typing this idea, I’m immediately put in mind of the last sentence of John Cheever’s “The Country Husband”: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”)

This is the extraordinary gift Munro has given to writers of my generation, this roadmap from the prison the inward-facing posture inevitably will become, toward the more frightening and culturally relevant engagement with the global largeness of which our lives have always been an exemplary part. A radical shift in perspective is required, a new vision, and the courage to ask such questions as: Why ought I continue in all the conditions of my life, in all my choices, to be beholden to the power of the seventeenth century minister who, while rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/alice-munros-writerly-wisdom-short-stories-arent-small-stories/283744/