Alice Munro’s Asceticism

I’ve just finished reading Alice Munro’s new collection of short stories “Dear Life” and am, once again, in awe of her prodigious skills in the short story genre. 

Already in writing this first sentence of my review/reflection, I inadvertently betray how much I have to learn from Munro. It’s unlikely that she would use an adjective like “prodigious,” at least not in one of her compellingly spare stories. Munro writes with a stylistic asceticism that eschews almost all adornment. “Eschews” is also an improbable word to appear in a Munro piece. (Fortunately, since I didn’t have Munro looking over my shoulder as I wrote my novel “Searching for Gilead,” I had the benefit of skilled editors to pare away superfluous descriptors by which I am all too easily seduced.)

Let me open “Dear Life” and select a page at random. Scanning through the roughly 375-word text on this particular page, I find a total of two adjectives (“easy” and “disgusting”) and three adverbs (“actually,” “exactly,” and “primarily.”)

I have two reactions to the lack of literary adornment in Munro’s short stories. On the one hand, her capacity to fashion a gripping narrative with the bare minimum of vocabulary is genius. Picturesque canvasses are drawn, the intimacies of characters’ inner lives are laid bare, and engaging plot scenarios are unrolled with prosaic everyday language. Reading the selections in “Dear Life,” I was never bored or distracted. Munro captured me and carried me along from beginning to end.

On the other hand, I miss savoring the beautifully poetic descriptions that are typical of other eminent fiction writers. I love luxuriating in the rich prose of a Jane Urquhart, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Esi Edujyan, or Allan Hollinghurst, let alone the classics of a Marcel Proust or Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. I’m thrilled by the writings of those who can draw from the teaming resource bank of languages to create powerful narratives that enthrall me and elegant descriptions that take my breath away.

With that (not inconsequential) caveat, let me return to celebrate one other aspect of Alice Munro’s writing. In “Dear Life,” which may possibly be the final book that is published by this Canadian literary giant, Munro demonstrates once again her capacity to create a wide variety of credible and internally consistent voices.  Within a paragraph or two of the beginning of each new story, the reader has a clear sense of the narrator or visual of the protagonist. And each voice, in each story, is unique.

Almost. The last four stories in “Dear Life” have autobiographical elements. As Munro says of these four, “I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” They are absolute gems and are all focused around the life of a young girl, presumably the same young girl who is, apparently, Alice Munro. My favourite, if I were forced to choose, is “Voices” in which a pre-pubescent girl is witness from a very great distance to the traumatic reverberations of war. The subtlety of the story is awesome—we readers discern what is going on through the child’s narration while the girl herself is left perplexed by what she is seeing and hearing.

My novel “Searching for Gilead” went through five drafts based on feedback that I received from friends whose judgment I valued and two editors who were sympathetic yet ruthless in their advice. The published book is immeasurably improved from the initial versions largely as a result of a protracted exorcising of unnecessary and distracting verbiage (I know—I hear you readers, writers and editors decrying the redundancy of the phrase “unnecessary and distracting verbiage.”)  I am now at work on a new writing project—a collection of inter-related short stories with the working title “Booktales.” Hopefully, having read and learned from Alice Munro’s “Dear Life,” I am further ahead than when I started work on “Searching for Gilead.”

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For more information on Alice Munro’s “Dear Life”, see:

For information on my novel “Searching for Gilead” and my memoir “August Farewell”, see my website at


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