Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

"Alice Munro" by Coral Ann Howells (Manchester University Press, 1998)

There's little comparative analysis (brief mentions of Atwood) nor any adverse criticism. There's a lot about "mappings" and a few quotes are repeated - e.g. "Mostly in my stories I like to look at what people don't understand. What we don't understand. What we think is happening and what we understand later on, and so on'" and "shifts of emphasis that throw the storyline open to question". That said, I found many comments useful - in the "Critical overview and conclusion" section especially. Below I've tried to group the remarks

This isn't the first place where I've seen her compared to V.S.Pritchett. I have trouble with him too. Part of my problem may be to do with what's supposed to be hidden. I've been working my way in my own writing from explicit symbols and juxtaposed scenes (happy to read Means, de Lillo, Ali Smith, etc) to using embedded symbols within a fluid narrative, so perhaps I see the symbols that are supposed to be hidden. She seems to be going the opposite way to me.


  • "I suggest that the dominance of secrecy and alternate texts in her stories implies an underground that is characteristic of texts by women" (Lorna Irvine).
  • "Her female narrators all have a fine double awareness of community values and of what else goes on outside those limits. They are fascinated by dark holes and by unscripted spaces with their scandalous discreditable stories of transgression and desire", p.3
  • "It is this alternative mapping which codes in elements of experience not otherwise representable with realistic fiction which is the link with Munro's treatment of women's romantic fantasies, the other feature which I wish to highlight as insistently present in her fiction from the beginning", p.5
  • "her stories present endless celebrations and revisions of female romantic fantasies with all their urgent eroticism, their bewildering contradictions and disappointments, and their defiance of age and experience", p.6
  • "their analyses of women's disposition towards shaping their lives as romantic fantasy plots - entertaining the same desires, suffering the same humiliations", p.78
  • "Munro is fascinated by the extent to which women are willing to make spectacles of themselves in their attempts to create exciting scripts for their lives", p.80
  • "Focusing on Munro's strategies of 'proliferating alternatives' which serve to blur binary distinctions, Godard discusses intertextual encounters with a dominantly masculine literary tradition and Munro's parodic revisions of Milton, Keats, Tennyson and Joyce, in contrast to her use of the maternal tradition", p.139

Layers and hiding

  • "surfaces which always hide something else, tracing shifts from the local and the physical to the psychological layering of experience over time or the multiple versions of a story mediated by different narrators" (Forceville, 1993)
  • "it seems as if I want to get a lot of layers going. I want the story to have a lot of levels, so that the reader can draw back and perhaps instead of thinking about what happens in this story as far as development of plot goes, to think of something else about life", p.10
  • "I hope I have managed to imitate to some degree Munro's fictional maps with their surfaces and hidden depth and interconnections which never fail to surprize us by opening out into moments of radiance", p.12
  • "The older I get, the more I see things as having more than one explanation. I see the content of life as being many layered. And in a way, nothing that happens really takes precedence over anything else that happens" - Munro

Realism and multiple meanings

  • "Munro's fiction with its constant deferrals and surprises subverts conventions of realism" (Heble, 1994)
  • "My main interest in Munro's experiments with the short story form and her shifts of emphasis toward increasing indeterminacy and multiple meanings, always contained within a realistic and domestic framework", p.146
  • "The story is not digressive although it gives that impression with its multiple narrative perspectives, its memory flashbacks and its sharp turning points, so that the mystery of the drowning is continually presented in new ways, each of which radically disrupts previous. In this clash of alternative versions distinctions between what is real and what is imagined tend to collapse", p.150
  • "In the early collections ... Munro works within the tradition of documentary realism, registering surface details of daily life and then disrupting those realistic conventions by shifts into fantasy. ... Endings are a significant feature in many of these stories, where something extra is added - some insight or additional detail of information - which unsettles the carefully constructed narrative ... [I]n the 1980s [i]nstead of placing the supplement at the end, supplementarity pervades the whole narrative through time shifts and shifts in narrative perspective", p.10
  • "Though Munro is not a fantasy writer her stories expose the limits of realism by working within a referential framework and then collapsing it by shifting into different fictional mode....As Munro shows, fantasy works with the same materials as realism, but it arranges them according to different imperatives, not of rationality or social convention, but of fear and desire ... each leaving out a dimension which the other includes and each disrupting the other's design", p.31-32
  • "It is also Munro's triumph to make her readers see that other world alongside the everyday, offering a glimpse into some of the multiple worlds hidden inside conventional maps of place", p.38
  • "Munro writes very well about the banality and the power of fantasy, which remains a central fact not affected by age or gender but which provides an inner space in which to invent new images of the self.", p.60
  • "Her multiple interpretations serve as a metafictional comment on the way that an artist might use the raw materials of history, suggesting the many reconstructions that could be made from the same incomplete evidence. This is a narrative strategy which Munro prefects in this collection and which she uses again in many later stories", p.74
  • "There is no clear distinction between what is real and what is fictional, just as there is no clear boundary between knowledge and belief. The meaning of these stories is never independent of the teller's interpretation", p.92


  • "She has continued to investigate parallels between the instability of language and the incompleteness of any fictional structure on the one hand, and the indeterminacy of human relations and the excess of the fiction-making imagination on the other", p.153
  • "Munro's stories encode a postmodern awareness of the strategies of fiction while at the same time deflecting the reader's attention away from such artifice through the domesticity of her language", p.87

Gothic - the ordinary and the epiphany

  • "Where but in Munro would we find a sentence like this ... This description by a young girl of the imaginative process of transformation from 'touchable' into 'mysterious' might also be taken as Munro's description of her quality of vision and of her fictional method of mapping alternative worlds", p.1
  • "Typically for Munro, realistic detail and ordinariness are highlighted and the extraordinary event is introduced obliquely in amongst neighbourly gestures"
  • "If Munro takes risks to unsettle readers' expectations by showing us the limits of conventional plots of mystery and romance, she also takes the risk of showing unaccommodated moments of grace and insight which far exceed anything her characters or her readers might anticipate", p.135


  • "these stories perform similar functions to gossip for not only do they give their narrators a kind of power to cope with circumstances which they probably cannot change but they also strive to make sense out of randomness and confusion in everyday life", p.15
  • "The Moons of Jupiter is arguably the most significant turning point in Munro's fiction-writing career, for it signals a radical change in her storytelling methods as she develops new ways of writing the passage of time", p.67
  • "It is this emergence of story via digressions which generate new meanings and resonances that is the distinguishing mark of The Progress of Love. The possible meanings of a story are unsettled at every stage in the process of its telling", p.85
  • "Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. This is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story does for me, and what I want my stories to do for other people" - Munro

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