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Green Jay

Alice Munro

Alice Munro has this year been given the Man Booker International prize for her body of work. But in his interesting introduction to Alice Munro's 2004 collection Runaway Jonathan Franzen tried to work out why,  apart from in Canada at that point, "her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame".

I think some of what he says has a bearing on what we've discussed here in the past about what we value in reading, what makes a book "good" (or does it?) and what we get or think we get from books we consider more serious as opposed to more entertaining. Here are some of his points.

"1. Munro's work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest faux-literary stuff."

Yes, we do struggle with enjoying the story "too much" at times, though  I think the latter part of the remark is a little bit mean. I'd love him to have been more specific with examples.

"2. As long as you're reading Munro you're failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data.  Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation's history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters' concerns are familiar to you , and if you become so involved with a book that you can't put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you're merely being entertained."

"3. She doesn't give her books grand titles like Canadian Pastoral, Canadian Psycho, Purple Canada, In Canada, or The Plot Against Canada. Also, she refuses to render vital dramatic moments in convenient discursive summary. Also, her rhetorical restraint and her excellent ear for dialogue and her almost pathological empathy for her characters have the costly effect of obscuring her authorial ego for many pages at a stretch. Also, her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent."

There's more, but I particularly enjoyed the above points about how writers are accorded or claim for themselves all the status and the glory, and I do get who he is having a bash at by this point.

He also says later "Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death... For as long as I am immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being."

Yes! And with other authors who just get it right.

He says that if short stories are hard to review, then Munro stories are almost impossible to review, as are they to summarise or encapsulate as they unwind and unwind, on different levels, and just as you think you know what the story is really going to be about it takes another - not twist - but level.

There are lots more good things in this short intro, which is very much of the age in which it is written (he speaks of Bush and Fox News and the prevalence of hatred as entertainment)  but suggests that Munro is "speaking to you and to me right here, right now" by quoting from one of her early works The Beggar Maid where a character wonders
"How could anybody hate Rose so much, at the very moment when she was ready to come forward with her goodwill, her smiling confession of exhaustion, her air of diffident faith in civilized overtures?"

I love Munro's books, and I very much enjoyed this thoughtful appreciation of her writing.
TheRejectAmidHair

Re: Alice Munro

Hello Green Jay,

As with many other contemporary authors I know I should read, I haven't read anything by Alice Munro. However, some of Jonathan Franzen's comments seemd worth commenting upon.

Green Jay wrote:
"1. Munro's work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest faux-literary stuff."


Like yourself, I was left wondering what was meant by "earnest faux-literary stuff". I also wonder what is meant by "storytelling pleasure". A story is, by definition, a sequence of linked events. These events can be dranmatic, exciting stuff - a fight, a chase, a murder, a suicide, etc. - or they can be purely internal: for instance, a character beginning to see things from a different perspective is also an "event". I am not sure what distinguishes the "earnest faux-literary stuff" from "storytelling pleasure": in its own way, there is as mch storytelling pleasure in a Henry James novel as there is in an adventure story.


Green Jay wrote:
"As long as you're reading Munro you're failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data.  Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation's history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters' concerns are familiar to you , and if you become so involved with a book that you can't put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you're merely being entertained."


This takes us into rather interesting areas. Unlike other arts, such as music or painting, literature cannot be abstract: it has to deal withsomething outside itself - with life, with people. There is no scope in literature for "art for art's sake". And so, inevitably, among the principal criteria for judging literature is the depth of the author's vision of life. But there is a danger here of judging a work purely in terms of what it tells us about something else other than itself. And that seems to me wrong. While literature cannot, I think, be seen purely as an end in itself (as music can), neither is it right to see it purely as a means to some other end. At this point, I think the argument needs to be taken up by someone who has thought about this matter in greater depth than I so far have managed to do.

I am afraid none of this is about Alice Munro: another writer to be put on my ever-expanding reading list!
Caro

I haven't thought about this in great depth, of course, but will still have my pennysworth.  I think the feeling that reading about ordinary people with familiar concerns means the book cannot be quite great is common and I am not sure that it is not also valid.  It is certainly one of the reasons I wonder if Jane Austen is really as great as her reputation suggests.  (She is not as easily read as people assume of course - someone just at the weekend said to me they had found her more complicated and difficult than they had expected.)

When I read The Lovely Bones the other week I thought it was very good, but I did find myself thinking that perhaps it couldn't be great since it is just talking about the grief people feel after the murder of a child and how they cope with that.  Putting the narrator in an unusual 'heaven' and giving it some detail did not really change that.  (We had a murder of a girl of that age in our town - before I came to it - and I could see some of their responses and reactions echoed in this book.  But then I read A  Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and have no difficulty calling it great, though it is placed at a very personal level too, but in a setting of war and distress and tragedy.  

But part of the greatness of a book is in its style.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road was not a book I enjoyed but I have no concerns with others considering it great.  Here the dystopian setting might be outside our experience but the relationship (the only relationship in the book) between father and son is very personal and small-scale.  But McCarthy's style is obviously highly-thought-out, as I suspect Alice Munro's is and as I think perhaps Alice Sebold's isn't so much.  Her ideas and setting etc are considered and evolved but her language is in a very straightforward readable style with nothing extra.  And perhaps that is why I would put something like Black Swan Green up a level, though it is set purely in an English village with ordinary kids.  Mitchell's use of language wasn't specially innovative but it had something more than just straight narrative.  

I think a modern great book needs at least two of these qualities - innovative or interesting use of language, story-telling readability, a setting of importance, and a depth of thought or importance of subject matter.  I am struggling a bit here to say what I mean exactly, but I am trying to think what is great about certain books.  Some of the great 19th century books don't depend on greatly innovative use of language - at least to our ears - but their depth of thought, the scope of their works puts them into a higher category than one dealing with specifically personal concerns.  (Part of this reflects my own reading preferences - I like books with a wide scope of characters at least and don't enjoy something with a single focus, like The Old Man and the Sea.)

I am rather surprised at the statement that Alice Munro is not well known though - I thought she was very well known as a short story writer.  Someone in my small district recommended her just the other day to me.  And our small library has 4 of her books.

Cheers, Caro.

PS I think what makes a book great as opposed to merely very good is an interesting one that we could consider in a thread of its own, perhaps.  Why is Tolstoy greater than Trollope or Faulkner or Ellroy or Minette Walters or Anne Tyler?
MikeAlx

I would say Alice Munro is fairly well known, mostly on the basis that I'm very familiar with the name despite never having read anything by her!

I don't think you can define necessary conditions for a book to be considered great; surely it's in the nature of artistic greatness to defy such preconceptions? Think of Shakespeare tackling the sonnet - it was considered a low and vulgar form at the time, and yet through it he produced stunning poetry that has continued to stimulate minds for 400 years.

I actually think the bias in assumptions has swung to the other pole in the era of modernism - it was the quotidian that was considered the best subject matter for "high art"; the extraordinary was treated with suspicion, and this was partly why plot became a dirty word in literary circles for many a decade (I read recently that FR Leavis refused to teach Dickens because he considered him far too "plotty").
TheRejectAmidHair

I think I agree with Mike that one cannot define the conditions that make a work great. This is a theme that, interestingly, pops up here quite often: what is it that makes a work great? And in a way, it is frustrating that there is no answer to this. Each great book is great in its own way, and to attempt to define greatness is necessarily to limit its possibilities.

Neither do I think that literary greatness is limited by subject matter. What makes for greatness is surely what the author makes of the subject. If Alice Sebold didn’t achieve greatness with her theme, the fault (if fault it is: it may well be that Ms Sebold wasn’t aiming for literary greatness, any more, perhaps, than most of her readers would be expecting it) – the fault, as I say, is not with the subject, but with the writer.

Prose fiction lends itself to depiction of the everyday, to the quotidian. This is why, for a long time, it was considered inferior to poetry or to drama. But the greatest authors of prose fiction transcend their subject – or, rather, they find the significant in the quotidian, the extraordinary in the ordinary. In short, a subject matter – any subject matter - is as important as the author sees it. A great author can invest the most ordinary subject with significance: a bad author can take the most profound themes and still write The Shadow of the Bleeding Wind.

Possibly the most spectacular instance of an author finding the significant in the everyday is Ulysses, but this preceded modernism. Writers as diverse as Austen, Flaubert, Chekhov – and even Tolstoy – were happy to focus on the everyday, and find in it the transcendent

For instance, one of the most wonderful and magical of all passages in prose fiction is that section in Anna Karenina where Levin spends the day mowing. What is depicted is nothing out of the ordinary. And yet… And yet, Tolstoy achieves something that is beyond my powers to describe.

I don’t think Jane Austen’s greatness is in any doubt. One may, as I do, feel out of sympathy with her perspective on human affairs, but her art certainly was not limited by her subject matter. As with all major writers of prose fiction, she found the significant in the ordinary.

As for style, it does not exist in a vacuum. Literature is the least abstract of all art forms, and style merely for its own sake is, I think, mere affectation. The style must serve a purpose: it must serve to communicate whatever it is the author has set out to communicate - what I often loosely term an “artistic vision”. If an author of the stature of a Cormac McCarthy chooses to write in a particular style, then it is up to us to try to understand what exactly is communicated by that particular style. And, usually, we need to look beyond mere plot. I haven’t read Alice Sebold, but I’d suspect that there is nothing much beyond the plot to look at. I may be wrong, of course.

(I haven’t read Black Swan Down, but, on the evidence of the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas, I get the impression that while David Mitchell is a superb mimic of other styles, he has no distinctive style of his own, nor anything that may be termed an “artistic vision”. Maybe Black Swan Down is different.)

Quote:
Why is Tolstoy greater than Trollope or Faulkner or Ellroy or Minette Walters or Anne Tyler?


I love my James Ellroy, but I certainly wouldn’t rank him with an author of the stature of William Faulkner: Faulkner was a far, far greater author. I haven’t read any Trollope either (a major gap in my reading of 19th century literature), and I am sure his novels are very enjoyable, but he’d have to be very good indeed before I’d think of ranking him with Faulkner. As for Minette Walters or Anne Tyler … … as with Trollope, it’s best not to pass comment on authors I haven’t read, so … who knows?
Caro

I don't think The Lovely Bones was particularly plot-driven; in fact I seem to have forgotten just how it ended.  The plot wasn't really the focus of the book.  It was more about how a particular event impacts on people and their reactions to it; how a seemingly happy family is thrown into turmoil by something outside their control.  Perhaps because this very thing happened in my tiny community and threw it into turmoil is why I feel it's very localised.  There was an element of the crime novel in it, but only in the sense that the police did not know who had committed this murder; the reader knew from the start.  What the police saw as a father's obsession was known by the reader to be the actual truth.  

You say, Himadri, that the fault lies in the writer and the writing, if I don't see greatness in it, but I'm not sure the fault might not lie in the reader.  I see The Kite Runner as a great book and Hosseini as a great writer, but I think that might be more my bias towards those sort of larger stories with more characters and more activity and set with a political (in a reasonably wide sense) background.

Cheers, Caro.
Green Jay

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
(I haven’t read Black Swan Down, but, on the evidence of the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas, I get the impression that while David Mitchell is a superb mimic of other styles, he has no distinctive style of his own, nor anything that may be termed an “artistic vision”. Maybe Black Swan Down is different.)



Of all your interesting remarks I'm afraid the first I choose to comment on is the most trivial, but it made me smile. The book Caro was talking about is called Black Swan Green and I think Himadri (this is the bit that makes me smile ) - of all people - is mixing up his Black Hawk Down, a Hollywood helicopter opera, with his Black Swans. I bet you're secret Mel Gibson fan, too....? And there's me picturing you with your wise beard, tucked away in a study with towering and very serious bookshelves, and not an HD ready flatscreen surround sound 99inch televisual contraption in sight.  Wink Fantasy shattered.
Green Jay

My interpretation of Franzen's privileging storytelling pleasure, given his later comments too, is that Munro puts her role of telling a story above showing how clever she is with flashy technique, verbal pyrotechnics, serial experimentation, or aiming at writing on a "big" theme which will encapsulate the era. Not that there is anything wrong with these , but that pure storytelling has often been  downgraded in the latter part of the 20th century when it comes to judging the seriousness and greatness of writers. Let alone all the tedious story-hating theories about the "text". Storytelling pleasure was a great element in 19th century fiction, but later innovation did tend to sideline story, concentrating more on how that story could be told and if indeed a story existed or was fragmented, multivoiced, unending, etc etc.

Munro has matured and evolved as a writer but essentially she is a storyteller, not an overt technician or an innovator. Franzen goes on to say that in essence  Munro is telling and retelling the same story, but I didn't quote this as I don't agree! I think one of her skills is to give us no inkling of how much work, thought and manipulation has gone into her seemingly effortless storytelling. Like watching a magician, if you can't see it happening but something has taken place - it's happening.
TheRejectAmidHair

Green Jay wrote:
TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
(I haven’t read Black Swan Down, but, on the evidence of the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas, I get the impression that while David Mitchell is a superb mimic of other styles, he has no distinctive style of his own, nor anything that may be termed an “artistic vision”. Maybe Black Swan Down is different.)



Of all your interesting remarks I'm afraid the first I choose to comment on is the most trivial, but it made me smile. The book Caro was talking about is called Black Swan Green and I think Himadri (this is the bit that makes me smile ) - of all people - is mixing up his Black Hawk Down, a Hollywood helicopter opera, with his Black Swans. I bet you're secret Mel Gibson fan, too....? And there's me picturing you with your wise beard, tucked away in a study with towering and very serious bookshelves, and not an HD ready flatscreen surround sound 99inch televisual contraption in sight.  Wink Fantasy shattered.


It's a fair cop, guv - you got me bang to rights!

The title of Black Hawk Down must have stuck somewhere in my unconscious, because if you'd named the title to me, I wouldn't have been able to tell you it is a Mel Gibson film. Indeed, I wouldn't have been 100% sure it is a film!

And yes - I admit to having a wise beard ... It's just the rest of me that isn't up to it!
Green Jay

I don't know if it is actually a Mel Gibson film, he's probably a bit too old for it, but it's that type of film, if I can say that. (Not that I've seen it, but I'm related to chaps who have!!)
Green Jay

But the Wise Beard is still intact. I'm calming down again now to hear that.

[Cut to clip of Gene Wilder obsessively stroking his "blue blankie" in The Producers]
TheRejectAmidHair

Caro wrote:
You say, Himadri, that the fault lies in the writer and the writing, if I don't see greatness in it, but I'm not sure the fault might not lie in the reader.  


I had to look back to remind myself of what I did actually say...

Quote:
If Alice Sebold didn’t achieve greatness with her theme, the fault (if fault it is: it may well be that Ms Sebold wasn’t aiming for literary greatness, any more, perhaps, than most of her readers would be expecting it) – the fault, as I say, is not with the subject, but with the writer.


The condition I stated was not "If the reader doesn't see greatness...". My condition was "If the author doesn't achieve greatness..."

I don't mean to comment specifically on Alice Sebold, given that I haven't read her work. My point is more general. And my point is that a good writer can create a good novel, or even a great novel, out of even the most unpromising raw material; and that if a book fails to achieve greatness (not "if a reader fails to perceive greatness...") then the limitation is on the part of the writer, not the material.

However, I don't of course insist that novels need necessarily aim to be "great" - irrespective of what we might mean by that word. It is given to very few novels to be "great", and not being "great" is not in itself a flaw.
Caro

But how do I know if a writer has failed to achieve greatness or if I as the reader have just failed to recognise it?  I need to read Jane Austen again, but I am not quite convinced of her greatness.  Which I take to be me missing something.  Maybe.  Or the rest of the world seeing too much.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Agreed, these aren't cut & dried things. That's why we have discussion boards - so we can discuss these matters!

I obviously have my own opinions, as does everyone else, and what eventually matters is the consensus of informed opinion. Our own individual opinions need not coincide with the consensus, and neither do they need to. But the consensus of informed opinion is the closest we can get to an objective perspective.

Like yourself, I am not the greatest fan of Jane Austen, and for a long time, that annoyed me, as I was sure I was missing something. And, being passionate about literature, I did not want to miss anything! So I kept on trying with Jane. I still think I am missing something, because I think it unlikely that I am smart enough to see through something that has been admired by so many people who are at least as intelligent and as perceptive as myself. However, I am not annoyed by this any more, since I am now happy to accept that we can't all like everything., and that, given our different perspectives, we are all bound to miss out on something or other.

But for all that, Austen's stature is beyond dispute. The consensus of informed opinion is far too great, however you or I may personally feel about that.
MikeAlx

For the record, Black Hawk Down (2001) was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor. I haven't seen it, but do remember reading that the original book was highly critical of the US military, whereas this was massively played-down in the film.

OK, as you were...
Caro

Forgot to say that I picked up Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman yesterday.  I do have about 12 other library books and am a little mindful of my resolution to read some of my own books regularly.  (I am reading one at the moment which is about the little ships built here in the early settlement days; it lends itself to being interspersed with other books, as it focuses chapter at a time on one specific ship and its career. Almost all of them ended their careers as wrecks - NZ coasts are rather unforgiving.)

Cheers, Caro.
Joe Mac

Caro, I read The Love of a Good Woman last year and found the stories a bit on the uneventful side for an old lover of action and adventure like me, but still oddly compelling. Perhaps not odd to anyone who understands these things better than I do. I find I can only take so much of stories in which nothing much happens, but Munro does draw believable and sympathetic characters.
I"m sure you'll let us know how you find it.
Caro

I think you would like what I am reading now, Joe - non-fiction about ships running up and down New Zealand.  The builder of them came originally from Nova Scotia.  I shall write something about it now on the non-fiction area.

Cheers, Caro.

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