bookmark_borderThe Kefuffel over Alice Munro

Back on September 25, the author and literature instructor David Gilmour was quote as saying in an interview,

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. I’ve never found—Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one short story from Virginia Woolf. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would teach only the people that I truly, truly love. And, unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Um. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I try Virginia Woolf, I find she actually doesn’t work. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too sophisticated for even a third-year class. So you’re quite right, and usually at the beginning of the semester someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I’m good at is guys.

This generated a Twitter attack. Gilmour responded in another interview, saying,

Q: Are you going to reassess the books you assign to students?

A: No, I’m not, because you love what you love. As Woody Allen once said, “The heart goes where it goes.” And the people I love are the people that I love. If someone wants a course on Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, I could put it on my curriculum, but I won’t teach it as well and as passionately as some of the teachers down the hall. So my job as an instructor is to send them to where they can get the best education about those people, and it’s probably not going to be in my room. You want to learn about Scott Fitzgerald? You want to learn about [Leo] Tolstoy or Chekhov or Philip Roth? I’m your man.


Q: Well, then, who are some of your favourite women writers?

A: At the absolute top of the list, as great a writer as exists, is Virginia Woolf.

Q: Who you do mention.

A: And I love Alice Munro. And that’s about it, in terms of who I really love. But I think that Virginia Woolf is maybe the greatest writer ever. I mean, I put her up with Tolstoy and with Chekhov.

So he’s not passionate about any female writers except Woolf. But he does love Alice Munro.


I didn’t really follow any of this until I read an opinion article from Naomi Lakritz,

You know what the most shocking thing is in the whole story about University of Toronto instructor David Gilmour’s refusal to teach women authors to students in his literature classes?

It’s not the omission of those authors; it’s the vitriol and name-calling with which supposedly literate, intelligent people responded to his statements.


Unable to relate much to women writers, Gilmour also doesn’t think much of Canadian writers, saying he hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers that he loves enough to teach. Nor does he care for the work of Chinese writers — as is his prerogative.

followed by,

But this is a free country and nobody has to take Gilmour’s course if they don’t like his approach. It is, after all, an elective. Far more troubling than Gilmour’s literary preferences, which aren’t actually troubling at all, is the prevailing attitude that he must be demonized for his tastes. Why they matter to anyone but himself and to the students who choose to take his class is a mystery. The intolerance with which they have been greeted makes me wonder if the critics think we should be a nation of Stepford readers, all thinking alike, all liking the same things, all dutifully expressing our adulation to whomever is deemed to be the literary lion of the day.

So she defends his right to have an opinion and to choose to teach, in an elective course, only the writers he feels most passionate about.

Of course, the beauty for the trolls is that Alice Munro has won the Nobel prize less than a month later. A perfect storm, in internet time. Just enough time for the kerfuffel to spread, die back and be reborn, still unforgotten. Now the trolls really have food, and they’re out in force poking fun at David Gilmour, suggesting he should reconsider his curriculum.

But wait; he loved Alice Munro to begin with. He’ll likely be happy for her. But that probably doesn’t matter to the trolls.

One person who is not a fan of Munro is Naomi Lakritz, who, in other parts of her article says,

Much of Can-Lit is admittedly pretty dismal, with the exception, in my opinion, of the late Brian Moore.

and elsewhere,

One of the Twitterati tweeted: “How can you idolize Anton Chekhov and not even be ‘interested’ in Alice Munro?” Uh, what’s one got to do with the other? Chekhov’s stories actually have plots, unlike Munro’s, which are just vague sketches of rather boring incidents in the lives of her uninteresting characters.

I don’t know what Alice Munro thinks of Naomi Lakritz’s thoughts. She probably doesn’t know of her, given that Munro’s daughter was the one who told her that she had won the prize so I don’t think she concerns herself with such things. I do think David Gilmour is probably happy for Alice Munro for winning the Nobel, though also unhappy about the refueling of the internet trolls.

And I’m happy for her too, for what that’s worth. Congratulation, Alice Munro, for recognition of a life time achievement. Well deserved.


bookmark_borderShow, don’t tell

One of the first aphorisms given to beginning writers is the old ‘show, don’t tell’ claim. Like any ‘rule’ of any endeavor, especially those of creative natures, it has as its basis some helpful advice, yet you also need to understand it, and then be able to understand when to break the rule.

Afaik, this rule has its source in the tendency amongst us writers to summarize or to inform the reader, to tell. The opposite, to show, is to describe the situation as it unfolds, to provide actions and dialogue and to let the reader get the story themselves. It’s often easier to tell than to show. To show takes more words, more detail, and normally is more work for the writer. But showing is real, it puts the reader more deeply into the story, encourages them to feel and to experience the story closer to first hand. It’s like the difference between listening to a talking head in a news broadcast, versus watching a documentary of the same event. When you show, you put the reader there, as opposed to them hearing about being there.

But there are times to break this rule. In my readings about writing (if I can remember where I’ll add it, but my mind is drawing a blank), the author pointed out how Alice Munro, the master of the short story, had summarized back story for her character, had told it rather than showing it. Now you could say, Wait, this is a short story, of course you have to speed things up. Not just to keep the word count down, but if you use too large a percentage of your words for back story, the back story had better be a good chunk of the story that you want to tell.

I also re-read John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich” recently. This is the third of four novels, each taking place ten years apart (and the last two winning Pulitzer prizes). Because I had read the earlier novels and because I had read this novel too some twenty-five years ago, this re-visit gave me the opportunity to better notice and to better appreciate how Updike offers backstory. And there’s a lot of it, from the two previous novels as well as from the ten years preceding this novel. How did he get here, what’s the history, what’s the connection? What do we need to know about what has happened between these characters? What is the memory that comes up for him? Skeeter? Who is Skeeter? Ruth? Why is Ruth important? What happened between him and Janice that caused them to separate? What does Nelson know, what is it that he’s holding against him? There are a huge number of things that the reader needs to learn (or remember, if it comes from one of the previous novels). This is all done through telling; through quick historical summaries to put things in context, but done naturally, at points when this information is needed.

And one of my writing projects is revising a sequel, the first one I’ve ever written. Rereading “Rabbit is Rich” has been a big help. In my first draft I thought, I’m writing a sequel, I’ve got to quickly dump a concise summary of the key points of the first novel so that the uninitiated reader gets up to speed right away so I can get underway. Maybe I was too influenced by television dramas and their “Previously, on LA Law …” type of rehash at the opening of episodes. But now I’ve distributed the backstory of the first novel throughout first half the second, rather than dumping it all in the first couple of chapters. The flavor of the story changes with this procedure. Now I just have some essentials in the first two chapters, enough to get the reader through the upcoming four or six chapters, and then the rest flows out in a couple later situations, when the information would naturally be coming to mind for the main character.

And, to be honest, it feels strange. I feel as if I’m hiding something from the reader, or I forgot to include my rehash at the beginning. And the second novel feels as if it were sewn into the fabric of the first, rather than created as a sequel like Robocop II or Rocky II or Karate Kid II.

bookmark_borderUsing alternatives for ‘said’

When you’re writing, do you use ‘said’ over and over, or do you go for variety by looking for alternatives?

I had an internet discussion with a fellow writer (who turned out to be fifteen years old, the relevance of which I’ll get to in a moment). He argued that ‘said’ is a bland, weak word and that I should be using stronger alternatives. I argued that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are accepted as bland tags and that the overuse of colorful alternatives is not in fashion these days.

Later I brought up this discussion at the dinner table, and my partner suggested that the use of colorful alternatives is fostered by school teachers trying to get their students to liven up their creative writing assignments. For research we grabbed a bunch of books from our shelves.

I wanted to check out some YA to see if the use of alternatives is common, and in the Percy Jackson series I found some pretty heavy doses. The book that I looked at was the first in the series but I wanted to quote in here from something available on the internet, so here, from “The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)”, by Rick Riordan, page 11, an excerpt of which is available on Amazon:

“I…I am a freak?” he asked me.

“No,” I promised, gritting my teeth. “Matt Sloan is the freak.”

Tyson sniffed. “You are a good friend. Miss you next year if …if I can’t …”

His voice trembled. I realized he didn’t know if he’d be invited back next year for the community service project. I wondered if the headmaster had even bothered talking to him about it.

“Don’t worry, big guy,” I managed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Not the most extreme example, but even in this excerpt we go from asked to promised, followed by the action sniffed, to the most difficult one to swallow, “I managed.” That last one is pretty gross, imho. Even promised feels like a situation where someone has reviewed the novel with the specific objective of trying to replace every said with an alternative.

In a different extreme I have wondered whether D. H. Lawrence was allergic to attribution tags. The generally accepted rule is to not go more than five statements before clarifying for the reader who is speaking, but here from “Sons and Lovers” (available from the Gutenberg collection) the identities are kept clear by 1) having only two persons in the scene, 2) short statements, and most of all by 3) clear cut objectives and positions of each of the two; one constantly pushing away and the other constantly questioning:

“I have been thinking,” he said, “we ought to break off.”
“Why?” she cried in surprise.
“Because it’s no good going on.”
“Why is it no good?”
“It isn’t. I don’t want to marry. I don’t want ever to marry. And if we’re not going to marry, it’s no good going on.”
“But why do you say this now?”
“Because I’ve made up my mind.”
“And what about these last months, and the things you told me then?”
“I can’t help it! I don’t want to go on.”
“You don’t want any more of me?”
“I want us to break off—you be free of me, I free of you.”
“And what about these last months?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not told you anything but what I thought was true.”
“Then why are you different now?”
“I’m not—I’m the same—only I know it’s no good going on.”
“You haven’t told me why it’s no good.”
“Because I don’t want to go on—and I don’t want to marry.”
“How many times have you offered to marry me, and I wouldn’t?”
“I know; but I want us to break off.”

Or, this excerpt from later in the same novel where a conversation between two characters has become between three, yet Lawrence uses the bare minimum of attribution tags in a three way conversation:

They looked into each other’s eyes, laughing. At that moment they became aware of Miriam. There was a click, and everything had altered.
“Hello, Miriam!” he exclaimed. “You said you’d come!”
“Yes. Had you forgotten?”
She shook hands with Clara, saying:
“It seems strange to see you here.”
“Yes,” replied the other; “it seems strange to be here.”
There was a hesitation.
“This is pretty, isn’t it?” said Miriam.
“I like it very much,” replied Clara.
Then Miriam realised that Clara was accepted as she had never been.
“Have you come down alone?” asked Paul.
“Yes; I went to Agatha’s to tea. We are going to chapel. I only called in for a moment to see Clara.”
“You should have come in here to tea,” he said.
Miriam laughed shortly, and Clara turned impatiently aside.
“Do you like the chrysanthemums?” he asked.
“Yes; they are very fine,” replied Miriam.
“Which sort do you like best?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The bronze, I think.”
“I don’t think you’ve seen all the sorts. Come and look. Come and see which are YOUR favourites, Clara.”
He led the two women back to his own garden, where the towsled bushes of flowers of all colours stood raggedly along the path down to the field. The situation did not embarrass him, to his knowledge.
“Look, Miriam; these are the white ones that came from your garden. They aren’t so fine here, are they?”
“No,” said Miriam.
“But they’re hardier. You’re so sheltered; things grow big and tender, and then die. These little yellow ones I like. Will you have some?”

Lots of asked and replieds rather than saids, but that’s the nature of this particular conversation. More importantly, note all the dialogue that has no tag in spite of the fact that three people are present. Lawrence has used the absolute minimum number of tags for this given dialogue and yet it is always clear who is speaking.

For our research we also pulled out some detective novels, some Alice Munro and others that I can’t remember. And later I also took a look at “The Hunger Games”, by Suzanne Collins, another YA novel but one that had been recommended to students by my daughter’s high school, to see if that one might be the same or different from The Olympians series. We found no other examples of (what I would call) overuse of alternatives.

The results of my survey: unless you can’t help it, don’t overuse alternatives to ‘said’. Unless, perhaps, you’re writing for an audience that won’t complain and who can take the sensory overload. School teachers might still push their students to consider alternatives, but overusing tags makes the writing stilted, and overusing colorful tags makes the writing garish.

I don’t think Robert Ludlum would be too offended with the description that I have indirectly applied. 🙂

bookmark_borderWriting analysis: “Axis”, by Alice Munro

I’ve been waiting to find another short story in the New Yorker that generated interest in doing some more writing analysis. After going back to some older issues as well as keeping up on the semi-regular delivery of new issues in the mail I finally found an interesting story to look at. Unfortunately, it’s a story by Alice Munro. I say “unfortunately” because it’s intimidating to select the master of the genre to be studying.

As always, this is not a review of the story as a story, but an analysis of how the story seems to me to have been put together, from a writers perspective.

“Axis” appears in the January 31, 2011 issue.

“Fifty years ago, Grace and Avie were waiting at the university gates, in the freezing cold.” This is the opening sentence. We now know 1) that the story may include sections from different points in time, 2) the general time placement of the opening scene, 3) the names of two central characters, and 4) their education situation. But the tag at the end gives a physicality to the setting, some discomfort, and a bit of interest.

The next few paragraphs define the attitudes of Grace and Avie. They are in university to find a husband, and it is understood that to get a job afterward would be a disappointment. When the bus arrives they move to the back so that they can smoke their last cigarettes for the weekend. This emphasizes the separation between their young adult/student life and their home life, something which is always an important issue at that age. It’s odd that their focus at university is to get married because that means heading into their own version of home life. Maybe they expect that their version of married/home life will be different.

The last two paragraphs of the opening are massive in terms of what they establish. When writing fiction it’s important to generate tension and conflict to drive the story forward. In these two paragraphs we learn the following conflicts/sources of tension:

  • Sex or not? Grace thinks no, and she believes it keeps her boyfriend Royce interested.
  • Grace is in love with Royce, but we suspect that he is not in love with her because it is not explicitly stated and because she is afraid of losing him.
  • Grace makes jokes to keep Royce from giving up on her because of her refusal to have sex. She fabricates jokes about Hugo (Avie’s boyfriend).
  • Grace doesn’t tell Avie about the jokes, and hopes that she will never find out
  • Avie is not in love, but wants to be.
  • She thinks that sex might cause her to fall in love so she does have sex with Hugo, but instead she becomes worried about getting pregnant.
  • Avie would rather have Grace’s boyfriend

That’s a lot of conflict. Doled out in just two paragraphs.

After the first jump in time it is summer and we see the world from Royce’s perspective. He’s never met Grace’s parents or been on a farm before. We get some direct thoughts from inside his head. His description of Grace’s mother:

… Grace looked nothing like her, thank God. Scrawny, cropped gray hair. She scurried around so, she didn’t ever seem to get a chance to straighten up.

We get to experience his ambivalence toward Grace:

Favorite trees. What next? Favorite flower? Favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post?

And his general ambivalence, just before his epiphany:

One farmer at the end of a ride said to him, “Say, can’t you drive?”

Royce said sure. “Just recently I’ve been driving taxis.”

“Well, aren’t you getting a bit old, then, to be hitching rides? .. aren’t you of the opinion that you should be getting a real job?”

Royce considered this, as if it were a truly novel idea.

He said, “No.”

And another great section, this time from the mother, defining her position as a hostess trying to play up to her guest.

“Royce here is the type to spoil a woman,” she said. “Anybody with him around would be getting the work done whiz-band and then be enjoying ice cream every day. We’d be spoiled.”

# # #

Often when an author chooses the name “Grace” for a character, references to that name pop up. Her description as “fair and stately”. The description by Royce of her house as “so impressive from the outside, had not a scrap of grace or comfort within.” And her eventual fall from grace when caught in bed with Royce by her mother. And then she is bumped around ungracefully. “His movements kicked Grace away from him. He could not help that, hardly noticed it. She had her head buried in the sheets, her bare buttocks now somehow exposed.”

# # #

One last observation.

As always, I did some research and discovered this article by Daphne Merkin from the October 24, 2004 issue of the New York Times. She met with Alice Munro to interview her about her life and her writing. After reading this article and then re-reading the story two links jumped out at me. First, Avie tells Grace her dream about the difficult crying baby that she locks away and then she discovers a second nicer baby. This reminded me of a quote from Munro talking about her own oldest daughter’s portrayal of Alice as a distant mother. She says of her daughter: ”She wasn’t the utter joy of my life she might have been. I was emotionally more open to the second.” I’m not implying that this is the only or even the primary reason for the use of the dream in the story, but the parallel is interesting.

More direct is this one. Royce tells Avie about seeing her on his way to visit Grace. At the time he thought about getting off the bus and stopping to talk to her. Now, fifty years later, he asks,

“Well, if you had known, would you have agreed?”  …

Avie doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, yes,” she says.

“With the complications and all?””


Munro met her second husband when just engaged to her first. She says about with her future second husband,

… “what she really hoped he would do, apparently, was ask her out. ”I wanted him to say something like, ‘When I laid eyes on you . . . ,”’ she explains, her voice trailing off, sounding like one of her own multilayered characters, about to revise the course of her destiny on a dime, without so much as a goodbye to her former life. When I ask whether she would have gone off with Fremlin then and there, she says, simply and unhesitatingly, ”Yes,”

Write about what you know. Avie is not the only one of Munro’s characters to feel this way or to contemplate such things. There’s a lot of Alice Munro in a lot of her characters.

If you’re more interested in reviews of the story as a story, see here.