Sunday, 30 August 2009

Too Many Notes?


The woman in the photograph is legendary Canadian author Alice Munro, whose latest book of short stories, Too Much Happiness, according to Harriet Zaidman, has padded narratives, underdeveloped secondary characters, and too much description.

Now, this view of Munro's writing would be perfectly valid if it weren't inadequate. Zaidman is, as the review states, "a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg." This means that she is asked, and asks, the following two questions:

1. "What is the plot of this book?"

2. "What is this book about?"

Zaidman is, as her review clearly indicates, not a fan of Alice Munro's writing by the way she neatly separates "Munro's fans" and "others who enjoy the short-story format" into two distinct camps. Fans of Munro's work, she implies, are those who enjoy padded narratives, underdeveloped secondary characters, and too much description; those that dislike Munro, she indicates, do not.

Zaidman's concerns regarding one story (and, it would seem, the entire collection) are as follows:
"Though she needs to provide some history to move a short story along more quickly, Munro's characters, especially the secondary ones, are not active enough within the plot to be persuasive."

While it isn't known which level of schooling Zaidman teaches at, she has, in essence, decided to analyze Munro's writing as if it might be taught in a high-school English course, giving it a failing grade for not adhering too closely to any one plot, having too many characters, and going off on numerous tangents-- which makes it difficult to boil down in a book report or, heaven forbid, an essay.

However, Munro's stories are not "plots", in the "A follows B follows C" regard; rather, they are worlds. Zaidman is of the impression that every character in a short story must contribute to the plot in some significant, life-altering way, which makes me wonder how Zaidman perceives the literature she, presumably, deals with day-to-day as a teacher and librarian.

Is the nice lady that was behind you in line at the candy store when you were 5 the key to your life's inner workings? Of course not, and she need not be: many people drop in and out of our lives without reason or significance, and, as Munro creates whole worlds within her short stories, her characters can as well.

Zaidman appears to have written her review of Too Much Happiness as if she were recommending it to a high school student, which is a noble argument in its own right; however, in doing so, she has focused on simple elements like plot and tension, instead of taking into account the wholly immersive experience Alice Munro provides.

In a way, it reminds me of what Emperor Joseph II -- who fancied himself a bit of a musical talent -- said to Mozart after hearing one of his new compositions:

"Too many notes."

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