Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Year's Best Alice Munro

Elizabeth Strout (editor), The Best American Short Stories 2013

Every year, after I finish reading The Best American Short Stories annual edition, somebody inevitably asks: “Was it any good?” As though that’s a yes-or-no question. I usually respond with: “Depends. What’re you looking for?” Every year seems dominated by some theme, some insight that doesn’t reveal itself initially, but only after scrutinizing multiple stories. This year, your response will depend on how much you like Alice Munro.

Munro became the first Canadian Nobel Laureate in Literature two days after this collection shipped. Pretty good for an author who only writes short stories, in a market where short fiction venues haven’t weathered the digital revolution well. If short fiction has any future in today’s marketplace, it’ll come from authors absorbing Munro’s influence. American literature once needed a thousand Mark Twains; today it needs ten-thousand Alice Munros.

Well, this collection offers twenty, including Munro herself. Ironically, Munro’s contribution to this year’s collection, “Train,” is perhaps the most conventional story I’ve read from her. It has her accustomed generational sweep, and eschews climactic peaks, preferring gradual revelatory patterns. Yet she retains a sequential narrative and keeps focus on one defining character. It’s surprisingly linear from today’s most quintessentially non-linear narrative artist.

Though this year’s other featured authors don’t merely mimic Munro, her influence pervades this collection. Like Munro, most of these authors favor introspective narratives that resemble one character’s personal memoirs, rather than action- or dialog-driven external events. Two stories even utilize the diary format. And most authors eschew Freytag’s Pyramid, the movement from exposition to climax to denouement, which one of my writing mentors called the “Male Orgasmic Story Model.”

Alice Munro
Instead, Munro and her votaries favor an arc of realization, as characters gradually uncover some concealed truth about who they are. Rather than one glaring moment when truth becomes unavoidable, these stories preponderantly prefer the friction that, with time, produces a pearl. Narrative becomes the process of discovery, not the history of moments. As Lorrie Moore puts it herein, “Mutilation was a language. And vice versa.”

Different authors use this arc to different purposes. Karl Taro Greenfeld, in “Horned Man,” gradually builds a Poe-ish tension that, in its final moments, never gets resolved, leaving savory dread in readers’ brains. Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Nemecia” unpacks the influence two cousins exercised on each other, growing up Spanish in the English-speaking southwest. These stories showcase a dark side to what we might call Munrovian fiction.

Authors like Daniel Alarcón and Suzanne Rivecca display another face. Nobody would mistake any story herein for Pollyannaism, and only fools would seek happy endings between these covers; yet these authors refute hip nihilism. Rivecca’s “Philanthropy” describes the healing a social worker begins when she stops playing socially acceptable roles. Alarcón’s “The Provincials,” though, shows a young actor beginning maturity when he chooses what adult role he wants to play.

Not every author handles Munrovian influence equally well. George Saunders, in “The Semplica Girls Diary,” starts an interesting story rolling, poses timely questions… then just stops. I’m reminded of that advice so often given undergraduates: “This story ends where it should be beginning.” David Means’ “The Chair” features a protagonist who receives a spectacular narrative opportunity, but, largely finishes where he began, resisting any opportunity for Munro’s powerful revelatory arc.

If this collection suffers one notable weakness, I’d cite narrow aesthetic diversity. Of the twenty stories, two magazines, The New Yorker and Granta, contribute nine. The remaining eleven come from generously sponsored glossy magazines; quirky, experimental lit rags stuff the Honorable Mention section. This perhaps explains the preponderance of white and Hispanic authors, particularly semi-celebrities like Jim Shepard and Junot Díaz. (Didja ever think any critic would disparage Hispanic privilege?)

Of these twenty authors, ten teach university-level creative writing. Though I’m nobody to condemn academic writers, this seems a remarkable number, representing prestigious schools like MIT, Vanderbilt, and Stanford. Alice Munro just writes, that’s what she does, and it shows in her distinct vernacular style, which other authors mimic, but seldom capture. Does this reflect the editor’s horizons, or does it reflect who has time to write in today’s economy?

Notwithstanding such momentary hiccups, this year’s eminently readable collection collects prime examples, from today’s prestigious names and looming stars. All “best of” collections have subjective views, reflecting the anthologizer as much as the market. But in today’s turbulent magazine market, this collection demonstrates two important, almost inarguable facts: first, short fiction retains its place in cultural discourse. Second, we have seen the future, and it looks like Alice Munro.

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