Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Alice Munro and the Nature of Fiction

No one will be surprised to hear that I am thrilled that yet another short-story writer has won a major award, the wonderful Alice Munro being awarded the International Man Booker. On Sunday the Observer ran a profile, and two of the things she is quoted as saying struck me particularly.

Firstly, she says: "I never have a problem with finding material. I wait for it to turn up and it always turns up. It's dealing with the material I'm inundated with that poses the problem." Now maybe by this she meant that there is just too much material to cover or to choose from (that word 'inundated' is probably a big clue), but I wonder if she also means this: that it's not finding material that's the problem for writers, but deciding how to process it. In other words, it's not the subject matter that is important so much as the way it's dealt with, the insights you bring to it, the language and forms which it gives rise to in a particular writer's hands. This last is an important point to make, it seems to me. We are in an age when books marketing tends to focus on subject matter alone, while it is the treatment which makes for great writing. It is one way in which a market-led publishing industry can indeed end up suppressing good books and silencing good writers.

Secondly, Munro says: "I have all these disconnected realities in my own life and I see them in other people's lives. That was one of the problems - why I couldn't write novels, I never saw things hanging together any too well." This really stopped me short. It seems to me any great novel nowadays must do exactly that, encompass the disconnected realities which characterize life in the 21st century. Maybe Munro is simply saying that she never wanted to to do this - after all, her short stories taken together do it beautifully - but I wonder if she is subscribing to a view of novels as (inappropriately) holistic, one which again lends itself to marketing and again can lead thus to the suppression of innovation and subtlety.
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