Few authors can be easily recognised as being among the greatest of their generation. Fewer still can easily be counted as staying among the literary elite for the entirety of their careers – their writing reaching across multiple generations of readers over the course of their lives. It is therefore fair to say that Nobel-Prize winning author Alice Munro is truly one of a kind.
Described by Jonathan Franzen as having “a strong claim to being the best fiction writer in North America”, the now-retired Munro has consistently inspired devotion among her readers. For Margaret Atwood, she is “an international literary saint”, while the New Yorker magazine describes her as “our blessing”. When she received her Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, the Swedish Academy called her “a master of the contemporary short story”. This, certainly, is beyond dispute. With 14 story collections, her psychologically subtle stories are nothing if not personal – and all the more intimate for it.
“In many ways I’ve been writing personal stories all my life,” Munro has said – and those familiar with her wok will know intimately the details of her years spent with her family on their struggling mink and fox farm during the Great Depression; the burden of her mother’s Parkinson’s disease in her early 40s; her young experiences of marriage, motherhood and divorce.
While many literary titans are known for either their poetry or epic novels, Munro stands apart for her skill as a short story writer. It is therefore interesting to note that she didn’t set out to write short fiction; and in fact always intended to write a novel, but never had the time to do so. Of this fact, she has said:
“Why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn’t intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. I had small children, I didn’t have any help. Some of this was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can actually believe it. There was no way I could get that kind of time. I couldn’t look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot.”
Regardless of the initial intention, over the course of her literary career Munro has produced countless rare and incredibly important short stories – a short list of which we have compiled below here, which you can read for free.
“A Red Dress—1946” (2012-13, Narrative—requires free sign-up)
“Amundsen” (2012, The New Yorker)
“Train” (2012, Harper’s)
“To Reach Japan” (2012, Narrative—requires free sign-up)
“Gravel” (2011, The New Yorker)
“Deep Holes” (2008, The New Yorker)
“Free Radicals” (2008, The New Yorker)
“Face” (2008, The New Yorker)
“Dimension” (2006, The New Yorker)
“Wenlock Edge” (2005, The New Yorker)
“The View from Castle Rock” (2005, The New Yorker)
“Passion” (2004, The New Yorker)
“Runaway” (2003, The New Yorker)
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (1999, The New Yorker)
“Queenie” (1998, London Review of Books)
“Boys and Girls” (1968, womanlit)
For writers inspired by Munro’s work, think closely also on her thoughts about what it takes to be a writer. In an interview with the Paris Review, Munro says:
“It isn’t just ideas you need, and it isn’t just technique or skill. There’s a kind of excitement and faith that I can’t work without. There was a time when I never lost that, when it was just inexhaustible. Now I have a little shift sometimes when I feel what it would be like to lose it, and I can’t even describe what it is. I think it’s being totally alive to what this story is. It doesn’t even have an awful lot to do with whether the story will work or not. What happens in old age can be just a draining away of interest in some way that you don’t foresee, because this happens with people who may have had a lot of interest and commitment to life. It’s something about the living for the next meal. When you travel you see a lot of this in the faces of middle-aged people in restaurants, people my age—at the end of middle age and the beginning of old age. You see this, or you feel it like a snail, this sort of chuckling along looking at the sights. It’s a feeling that the capacity for responding to things is being shut off in some way. I feel now that this is a possibility. I feel it like the possibility that you might get arthritis, so you exercise so you won’t. Now I am more conscious of the possibility that everything could be lost, that you could lose what had filled your life before. Maybe keeping on, going through the motions, is actually what you have to do to keep this from happening. There are parts of a story where the story fails. That’s not what I’m talking about. The story fails but your faith in the importance of doing the story doesn’t fail. That it might is the danger. This may be the beast that’s lurking in the closet in old age—the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing.”