Sunday, October 24, 2010

One More Word (I think) on Munro's "Corrie"

Well, my friends. Thank you so much for the invigorating discussion about Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” However, I have nothing new to add to what I have said in defense of Ms. Munro's tactic in the story. I think she supports the secrecy theme with the free indirect point of view very nicely indeed. I hope some others will weigh in on this little debate. However, I leave it, at least for the time being, with this little quote I have penciled in on a 3x5 card (Raymond Carver used to do this; remember him?) from a piece by Joyce Cary (remember him?) in the New York Times Book Review way back in 1950: (I was only nine at the time, but I was precocious.)

"Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’”

I used the quote as the heading for a piece I did several years ago on Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” rebutting one critic’s claim that Hemingway had screwed up the dialogue designation in the story, thus creating reader confusion. As a result, Scribner’s actually changed the text in the next edition of Hemingway’s Collected Stories. I was outraged; I knew Hemingway was too damned careful to muck the story up and tried hard to show that he had a sound thematic reason for creating what that critic thought was a mistake. The last time I checked, Scribner’s had changed it back to the original. So it goes!

I always tried to convince my students that if they read a story and thought it was screwed up or just plan screwy, they should assume first of all that it was their fault and not the fault of the writer. I always assume, and tried to convince them to assume, that the writer knew what he or she was doing. However, if they read it several times and really gave themselves over to the work and still couldn’t come to terms with it, then, I was happy to listen to arguments. I have been happy to listen to arguments by Ed and Kseniya about “Corrie,” but I have read it again and again, and I still believe Ms. Munro has got it right here. I am not saying I can’t be convinced that Munro cheated (Heavens!) or that she did not know how to pull it off (Lord a’mercy!), just that at this point, my faith in her unerring ability at writing short stories has not been shaken. Keep those cards and letters coming!

In the meantime, serendipitously, I have been reading David Means’ new collection The Spot, which contains a story entitled “Reading Chekhov,” which is a version of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog,” the greatest adultery story in Christendom, in my opinion. So I went back and read Chekhov's “Lady with the Pet Dog” again and was, as the young’uns like to say, “blown away.” I then looked up Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Lady with the Pet Dog,” and was so underwhelmed that I dozed off twice.

So, since with Munro, we have been talking about adultery (we have been talking about adultery, haven’t we?), I thought I would post a blog comparing the Means with the Munro with the Chekhov with the Oates. I love to bad mouth Oates about as much as I love to praise David Means.

Oh, by the way, I just got the new edition of Best American Short Stories, 2010 and am reading it dutifully. I will have a post on my progress in a couple of weeks.

And there is a new David Means story in the recent issue of the New Yorker. I will comment on it in the next week also.

I appreciate my readers and look forward to more lively responses to my humble remarks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Alice Munro's "Corrie": Secrecy and Point of View

There’s nothing I enjoy more since starting this blog than interacting with readers who are reading the same stories I am and have thoughtful things to say about them. Kseniya has a very insightful comment and query on Alice Munro’s “Corrie” that I think deserves a second blog entry on that story. Her question made me go back and read it twice more. So at the risk of sounding, at best, academic and, at worst, pedantic, I post the following post script to Munro’s story.

Kseniya points out that the point of view of the first part of the story seems to be that of an omniscient teller, although it stays within the perspective of Howard Ritchie. She says that when we learn about Sadie’s letter threatening blackmail, we believe the omniscient teller to be telling us the truth. Kseniya also says she takes the letter for a fact because Ritchie does not seem cunning enough to dream up this scheme. Furthermore, she says that if the letter is a lie, the reader begins to wonder what is and what is not fact in the story, thus raising the issue of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, Kseniya suggests that since we are given quite a bit of insight into Ritchie’s mind in the first part of the story, it seems manipulative of the narrator to withhold the fact that he keeps the money.

Here is my own take on the point of view issue in the story: First of all, I think that a writer of good short stories, such as Alice Munro, is very careful to make the technique of the story parallel the theme of the story. The key to the success of any affair is secrecy. And although “Corrie” embodies a complex of themes about infidelity--cheating, concealment, guilt, compensation, money, family, stasis--secrecy is the central theme. And to illuminate this theme, Munro must manipulate the point of view very carefully.

Because this is a short story concerned with the themes mentioned above, not a novel concerned with the particulars of the characters’ behavior and thoughts, what we know about Howard Ritchie in the first section of the story, even though we seem to be within his perspective, are only those things that contribute to the theme the story develops. We only need to know the following: that Ritchie is “equipped” with a “family”; that he is conservative; that he is somewhat awkward about how to respond to Corrie’s lameness; that he feels he has no time for anything but earning a living and caring for his family; and that he suspects that when Corrie goes to Egypt she will be snapped up by some creepy fortune hunter; that he finds her behavior verging on the tiresome; that he knows, from his own experience, that for some men money never becomes tiresome.

If we only seem to know a few facets of Ritchie’s feelings and thoughts, it is because we only require these to respond to the theme. And based on this knowledge, I would say there is nothing to suggest that Ritchie would not exploit Corrie for her money.

In the second section of the story, which introduces the blackmail letter from Sadie, the point of view is carefully controlled, as is the voice of the verbs. The information about Sadie working in a house in the city after leaving Corrie’s employ is revealed in passive voice. Noting that Sadie continues to do housework, the narrator says, “This was discovered on an occasion when Howard and his wife were invited to dinner, with others at the home of some rather important people in Kitchener.” Who discovers it? Ritchie, of course, since we are still within his perspective.

However the account seems to focus on this being Sadie’s discovery. This ostensible shift takes place very subtly in the following sentences: “There was Sadie waiting on tables, coming face to face with the man she had seen in Corrie’s house The man she had seen with his arm around Corrie when she came in to take the plates away or fix the fire. An unknown woman with him, who, the conversation soon made plain, was his wife. It was also made plain that his wife had not come recently into the picture. Her time had overlapped with Corrie.” This is not Sadie’s perspective, but what Sadie’s perspective might have been from Ritchie’s perspective.

There does not seem to be any question that Ritchie has actually seen Sadie at a party he and his wife attended. However, since we have been limited to Ritchie’s point of view and have no reason to think we have shifted into Sadie’s point of view, this seems clearly to be Ritchie’s account of the encounter, in which he assumes that Sadie knows that his affair with Corrie is illicit, but does not know what Sadie intends to do with the information. By the time Ritchie tells Corrie about all this, he has tentatively decided what he will do.

Ritchie has been brought up in a fiercely religious household and knows that someone must pay for breaking the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” He knows he cannot pay, for he has little money and has a family to support. And why should not Sadie pay, since she has no family responsibility, doesn’t care for money, and is crippled? This is all rather harsh when expressed so blatantly, which is one of the reasons that Munro keeps it secret. The only relationship in which we see Ritchie engage is with Corrie, and since the key to his relationship with Corrie is secrecy, what we know about Ritchie is only what Corrie knows.

When we read the line, “Sadie said that she had not gossiped about it all,” we know that this is something that Ritchie has told Corrie, not necessarily something that Sadie has told Ritchie. Ritchie’s account of the contents of the letter to Corrie is told in a coy way that, we later learn, does not sound like Sadie at all. “Would his wife be interested in getting this information?” is the way Ritchie says Sadie put it. Even more unlike Sadie is her ostensible remark, “I would hate to have to break the heart of such a nice lady with a big silver-fox collar on her coat.” Corrie wonders how Sadie would even know a silver-fox collar from “a hole in the ground,” asking Ritchie, “Are you sure that’s what she said.” The silver-fox collar, which Ritchie finds hypocritical of his wife to wear, given her left wing leanings, is a little detail of verisimilitude that Ritchie invents to make his story seem credible.

In this conversation, the point of view perspective subtly shifts to Corrie, for she wonders what if Ritchie rejects her offer to pay the blackmail, what if he thinks it is a sign that they should stop. “She was sure there’d be something like that in his voice and in his face. All that old sin stuff. Evil.” When Corrie says, “You’d feel you were taking it away from your family,” Ritchie’s face actually cleared, although Corrie fears she should never have said that word “family.” Ritchie then suddenly remembers something else from the letter—that the money has to be in bills. “He spoke without looking up, as if about a business deal. Bills were best for Corrie, too. They would not implicate her.” Ritchie is obviously thinking on his feet here. And indeed it is a business deal.

It is September when Corrie hears about the death of Sadie. She has given the money to Ritchie to deposit in Sadie’s box in August. Corrie knows that Ritchie has not heard about Sadie’s death, and she also knows that Sadie was not able to pick up the money this time because of her illness, so she wonders if Ritchie has checked to see if the money has been picked up; she thinks not since he has not contacted her.

When she wakes the next morning, “She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.” She realizes that the news of Sadie’s death that would have freed them from the blackmail and the “queasy feeling” she has always had of “the never-quite safeness of their affair is no news to Ritchie at all, because Sadie does not matter and never has. The “family” theme is echoed, as she thinks that the twice-yearly sum of money would have gone straight into his pocket, for he is a man with a family, children to educate, and bills to pay. What makes Corrie come to this realization? All the same things that have made the reader come to the realization: her knowledge of Ritchie, her knowledge of Sadie, Ritchie’s account of the nonexistent letter, his failure to contact her about the money in the mailbox.

We do not get inside the mind of Corrie in this section of the story any more than we get inside the mind of Ritchie in the first section. We have no particular information about her feelings. We only know she is trying to adjust to the realization she has come to and that she feels a sense of emptiness—“a cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.” She then comes up with another possibility. She knows that Ritchie may never know of Sadie’s death since he has no connection with her and no connection with the family she has worked for. He will therefore expect things to go on just as they have—with Corrie giving him the money twice a year and him pocketing it.

Corrie could say something, but she knows that what they have demands payment, and she is the one who can afford to pay. And so, she will continue to pay, for what difference does it make if the money goes to Sadie or to Ritchie, for she has already made it clear that she is willing to pay. Of course, a day may arrive when Ritchie will find out that Sadie is dead. What will happen then? This just means that for Corrie, one sense of “never-quite safeness” has taken the place of another. Everything is in its proper place—in Corrie and Ritchie’s lives and in Alice Munro’s story.

Well, that’s how I read the story. I would love to hear other readings. Thanks, Kseniya, for sending me back to the story.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alice Munro, "Corrie" New Yorker, Oct 11, 2010

Well, my friends, I will take “1 over 70” in preference to “20 under 40” any time, when the “1” is Alice Munro. Ms. Munro is seventy-nine and, thank heavens, still going strong. I have read her new story “Corrie” in the Oct 11, 2010 issue of the New Yorker three times now, and it gets better with each reading, which is one of my criteria for a great story. I thought too many of the “20 under 40” pieces in the New Yorker in the past months needed only a single reading. But that may have been because most of them were chapters from novels and therefore, by my definition, not as carefully written and tightly wound as short stories.

I have recently been in e-mail conversation with Ulrica, one of my readers, who has studied Munro extensively. She notes the frequent comment made by reviewers of Munro’s stories that they have the “complexity” of a novel and asks if I think that a comparison between a short story and a novel always must be aware of the genre difference. I think the genre difference is crucial and that the issue raised by reviewers’ judgment that a Munro story is “novelistic” settles on the meaning of the word “complexity.”

I tried to deal with the issue of novelistic vs. short story complexity a few years ago in an article on Alice Munro in the Canadian journal Wascana Review and would be happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who does not have access to that very fine journal. Ulrica’s question and the publication of Munro’s new story “Corrie” prompts me to visit that issue again. The very fact that “Corrie” covers a time period of over twenty years will probably raise the question for some reviewers, who may assume that the development of characters over time is a novelist notion.

However, after three, going on four, readings of the story, I would insist that ”Corrie” is a classic short story with all the virtues of that form subtly displayed. In this story there is no development over time, and that fact lies at the heart of what the story is about. I make no apologies for the following analysis being a plot “spoiler,” for, as I have said many times, the real reading of a story occurs the second or third time, not the first—which is merely an internalizing of the plot and character configuration to make the important second reading possible. “What happens next” is not so important in the short story. “What it means and how it means” is everything.

The two key words of the first sentence of “Corrie”—“money” and “family”--announces the theme of the story, but one does not know this until one comes to the end of the first reading. The first thing we notice about Corrie, who is 26 at the beginning of the story, is that she is always laughing or on the “verge of laughing.” The first thing we notice about Howard Ritchie, who is only a few years older, is that he is “already equipped with a wife and a young family.” The only thing we need to know about Corrie’s father is that he owns a shoe factory, has lots of money, and soon after has a stroke--all of which makes Corrie alone and available. Although Ritchie finds her somewhat “tiresome,” she has money, and he knows that “to some men that never became tiresome.”

Oh, one more thing about Corrie—she is slightly lame from a childhood bout with polio. Why is she lame? Well, for one thing, it makes possible this response from Ritchie, which announces the beginning of their affair: “He hadn’t been sure how he would react to the foot, in bed. But in some way it seemed more appealing, more unique, than the rest of her.” Ritchie has never had sex with anyone but his wife, and Corrie is a virgin, “a complicated half truth owing to the interference of a piano teacher when she was fifteen.” (We may or may not recall this detail later in the story when Ritchie begins taking piano lessons)

Ritchie is religious, but keeps it to himself because his wife, who is very left wing, would make a joke of it. Corrie already makes a joke of religion for herself, when she says she has never had time for God, “because her father was enough to cope with.”

Enter Sadie Wolfe, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the serpent in the garden, or maybe the red herring. Hired to help care for Corrie’s invalid father, Corrie tells her she is too smart to do housekeeping and gives her money for typing lessons. However, (and here is where the point of view of the story is handled so slyly by Munro that we are kept more than a little off guard), Sadie takes another housekeeping job and, at a party, discovers that the man who has been coming to visit her previous employer, Corrie, has a wife. Ostensibly, Sadie sends Ritchie a blackmail letter, threatening to blow the whistle on him to his wife. When he tells Corrie about this, she agrees to pay the blackmail payment (we are not told how much money, for that would elicit an unnecessary judgment on our part—how much is it worth to keep an affair secret?), which she gives to Ritchie twice yearly, which he places in a P.O. box in Sadie’s name. Then, As Corrie expresses it when she gives the money to Ritchie twice a year, “How the time goes around.”

The reason Corrie pays the blackmail demand is not only that Ritchie does not have it, but that he would feel he is taking it away from his family. “Family. She should never have said that. Never have said that word.” Ritchie’s family is the unspoken factor of the affair.

After arrangements for this on-going blackmail payment is settled, the story shifts to focus on Corrie, whose father dies, after which the shoe factory is taken over by a large firm that promises to keep it running. When the company closes it, she decides to turn it into a museum in which she will exhibit shoe-making tools. When the company tears the building down, she decides to take over an old library in town, which she opens two days a week. These two ventures would seem to be mere plot elements or place keepers for the time that passes, if it were not for her remark to Ritchie when he comes back from Spain with his family, “You’d think my place were a shine the way you carry on.” This motif of places in which the past is enshrined—the museum and the library—is also emphasized by the fact that the most prominent business in the town is a furniture store “where the same tables and sofas sat forever in the windows, and the doors seemed never to be open.”

This static relationship continues until there is an abrupt shift. In September, Corrie learns that Sadie Wolfe has died and that the funeral is scheduled for a church in the town near the library. When she goes to the reception following the service, she meets the woman for whom Sadie worked, who praises Sadie, telling Corrie how much the children and later the grandchildren loved her, and how she kept her illness (probably cancer) to herself. “She was absolutely not a person to make a fuss,” the woman says. The minister agrees, “Sadie was a rare person.” “All agreed. Corrie included.” This is a restrained reference to the fact that Corrie has never had children of her own and never will have. It also suggests that Sadie may not have been the kind of person to blackmail someone. But then, who knows?

When she awakes the next morning, “She knows something. She has found it in her sleep. There is no news to give him. No news, because there never was any. No news about Sadie, because Sadie doesn’t matter and she never did.” Corrie realizes there was never a post office box, that the money was kept by Ritchie for the trip to Spain and other family expenses. “People with families, summer cottages, children to educate, bills to pay—they don’t have to think about how to spend such an amount of money.” (Now we know why “family” and “money” are the two key words in the first sentence.)

Corrie now tries to get used to this “current reality” and is surprised to discover that she is capable of shaping another reality. If Ritchie doesn’t’ know that Sadie is dead he will “just expect things to go on as usual.” Corrie thinks she could say something that would destroy them, but she does not have to. She knows that what she and Ritchie have had—what they still have—demands payment” and that she is the one who can “afford to pay.”

The last paragraph of the story, after this realization is:

“When she goes down to the kitchen again she goes gingerly, making everything fit into its proper place.”

This seems to me a wonderfully self-reflexive ending to a story in which, indeed, as is appropriate for the short story form, everything does fit in its proper place.

If this were an actual real-life situation, or a novel about a real-life situation, then we might ask the following questions:

“Why does Corrie put up with Ritchie for all these years? What kind of experience do they have together? Why doesn’t Corrie find herself a good man? Why is Ritchie such a son-of-a-bitch?” But the story is not about such issues. Corrie is not a real person; she is a paradigm of a woman having an affair. The story is about the affair as a universal, classic phenomenon. Ritchie is not a real person; we know very little about him, about what he thinks. He is a paradigmatic married man having an affair.

And what paradigmatically characterizes an affair?
Well, for one thing, the “other woman” must be an object of desire to the man, but not necessarily an object of desire to all men. That’s why Corrie is both rich and crippled. She has something Ritchie wants, but is flawed by something that other men may not want. And what is Corrie like? We know nothing about her except that she does not take things too seriously—thus often on the verge of laughing—and that she accepts her responsibility in the affair to the extent that she is willing to pay for it. And what kind of life does Ritchie have? All we know is that it is a life with his family. We do not see Corrie crying about being left alone when he spends time with his family. For after all, this is what she has bought into. What is her life like during these years of the affair? We know nothing particular about it. We just know it is static, frozen in space—like an artifact in the museum or a book in a library, or the furniture in the window of the furniture store.

I would be most happy to hear from my readers about this story. There is much more to say about it, I think, but I have said enough. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ten Most Important Short Story Writers for 10-10-10

Since I'm a sucker for commemorative occasions and symbolic dates, how could I resist posting a list of “ten” to commemorate the tenth day of the tenth month of the tenth year of the century. We will never see another. So here is my list of the 10 most important short story writers in the history of the genre, with a brief note explaining why I think they are so important.

Giovanni Boccaccio
Because he transformed the oral tale into written literary art

Edgar Allan Poe

Because he recognized that pattern was more important than plot

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Because he populated symbolic romance stories with as-if-real characters

Anton Chekhov
Because he created “realistic” stories with symbolic significance

James Joyce
Because he recognized that short fiction was a spiritual “showing forth”

Eudora Welty

Because she created a world of mythic meaning out of common folk

Flannery O’Connor

Because she understood that true reality of short fiction was the realm of the sacred

Raymond Carver

Because he created haunting recognitions out of the most minimal of materials

William Trevor

Because he subtly suggests the secret lives of us all

Alice Munro
Because she’s Alice Munro

More on the divine Alice next week when I post an extended analysis of her new story in the Oct. 11 New Yorker, “Corrie.”

I welcome all suggestions of disagreements, deletions, or other alterations to this list, with justifications for the aforesaid. But that doesn't mean I will change my mind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Flannery O'Connor at Library of America

The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” this week is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Train,” a story from her M.F.A. thesis at University of Iowa, which later became the basis of chapter one of her first novel Wise Blood. If you have not read it, you might be interested. You can sign up for the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” at

I am currently editing a collection of essays on Flannery O’Connor for the Critical Insight Series published by Ebsco/Salem Press. The book will contain four original essays that I contracted O’Connor scholars to write for the volume, as well as twelve previously published essays on O’Connor that focus on her two novellas and her two collections of short stories.

The volume also includes an essay I wrote on O’Connor’s contribution to the romance/short story tradition within which she created her work. You may recall that last year when the National Book Award Committee asked readers to vote for the Best of the National Book Award winners since the fiction Award began, the winner was Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories. Given the fact that publishers are reluctant to take on short story collections, it is worth noting that four of the six books nominated—The Stories of John Cheever, Eudora Welty’s Collected Stories, Collected Stories of William Faulkner, and The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor—were short story collections. The only two novels to make the shortlist were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

One of the many things I admire about O'Connor is how determined she was from the beginning of her career to write symbolic short fiction in the Hawthorne tradition rather than conventional realistic novels as her publishers continued to urge her to write. When she was working under contract to write Wise Blood, O’Connor was unhappy with the kind of editorial response she received from Holt Rinehart and asked to be released from her contract, complaining that a letter to her from the editor John Selby “was addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl.” She wrote Selby: “I feel that whatever virtues the novel may have are very much connected with the limitations you mention. I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from.”

And she stuck to this insistence on writing symbolic short fiction rather than realist long fiction throughout her too short career. My essay in this new book tries to place O’Connor in the romance/short fiction tradition to which she belongs and discusses her unique contribution to that form.

If you read “The Train,” you might find it interesting to compare it with the first chapter of Wise Blood, in which Hazel (named Wickers here but changed to Motes later) is just out of the army and on the way home. The primary difference between the two versions are the additions O’Connor makes to Haze’s conversation with people on the train, and his remembrance of his preacher grandfather, all of which point to the religious themes which O’Connor later makes uniquely her own. Haze tells a woman in Wise Blood, “Do you think I believe in Jesus? Well I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.” In thinking about his childhood, “He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure…” The first chapter of Wise Blood ends with Haze feeling that the berth where he is sleeping is like a coffin, and he cries to the porter to let him out. “Jesus, Haze said, Jesus.” The porter only replies, “Jesus been a long time gone” in a sour triumphant voice.

If you have not read Flannery O’Connor in a while, she is worth reading again. In preparation for editing this book, I just finished reading all of her fiction and nonfiction. If you like her work, you might want to read the collection of essays and talks entitled Mystery and Manners and the wonderful big collection of her letters entitled Habit of Being. She was a wise and witty woman.

The book I am editing won’t be out for a while. I am currently writing the introduction and compiling the bibliography. But I will let you know when it is published. There is no doubt that Flannery O’Connor is one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century. I admire her dedication to that underrated form. I would be happy to hear your own opinion of O’Connor.