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Herald writer doesn’t get this Alice Munro thing

It’s not often you read an Alice Munro slam, so Quillblog took notice of this one in the Calgary Herald. Staffer Naomi Lakritz, who is apparently a political columnist at the paper, attacks Munro’s new Selected Stories:

Alice Munro’s world is unremittingly grey. It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.

Now, although we’re certainly Munro fans here at Quillblog, we’re also in favour of critical reviewing and disinclined to kneel before sacred cows. So when we say this review’s an embarrassment, we’re not saying, “Lakritz doesn’t like Munro, therefore she de facto doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

However, it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before. Which is the real issue here: surely some sensitivity and expertise should be a prerequisite for a book reviewer?

  • http://www.shaunsmith.ca Shaun Smith

    This may herald a whole new lit crit language…

    The characters were so aargghh! And the prose was simply eeeek! The dialogue meanwhile was oooompf! while the author’s thematic concerns are deeply ggaaaaah! In the end, however, it was a grrrrrrr! read, with too much hmmm!

  • Charles

    You can agree or not with the opinion of Naomi Lakritz, but to her credit she’s laid out a certain amount of analysis of the book. In response, all you’ve done is make a cheap ad hominem attack on the critic, claiming that “it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasnt read much literary fiction before” – i.e. that she is too ignorant to be taken seriously as a critic. And the evidence you’ve offered for that? None. You claim that “when we say this reviews an embarrassment, were not saying, Lakritz doesnt like Munro, therefore she de facto doesnt know what shes talking about. In fact, that’s exactly what you’re saying, because the fact that she criticized Munro’s book is the only justification that you give for claiming her to be ignorant. The embarrassment here is not Lakritz’s article, but rather this condescending, lazy response to it.

  • angel guerra

    Send in the lit police the blasphemers have mounted the pulpit without the proper credentials. Where the hell’s Yann Martel at a time like this? Another book list Yann c/o the Calgary Herald.

  • SJ

    Amen Charles.

    I consider myself well-read and Murno has always left me cold, bored even, and for much the same reasons cited in the review.

    Perhaps the Empress has no clothes?

  • dewey_decimal

    What a sneering, condescending response to the Herald article. I enjoy quite a lot of literary fiction, including literary Canadian fiction (favourite authors include M.G. Vassanji, Timothy Findley, Robertson Davies, and many others), but I agree with Lakritz’s assessment of Alice Munro — I’d rather go to the dentist than read her books, and I think the prevalence of her work in the high school and undergraduate curricula is one of the reasons so many people say they don’t like CanLit. However, I think Lakritz could have expressed her criticism more knowledgeably.

    She might, for instance, have referred to the work of thinkers from Aristotle’s Poetics to Freytag’s influential model of dramatic structure, and pointed out that many modern writers have moved away from this focus on plot, particularly writers of short stories. She might have debated whether or not such a lack of plotting is one reason for the short story’s decline as a popular form of literature (this is my own pet theory, after struggling through an anthology of Canadian short stories). She might then have offered an opinion on whether those of us who prefer our stories with a plot are ignoramuses and philistines, or whether our preference for the old models of dramatic structure is a defensible one.

  • Diane Waldock

    It would not have been surprising to see this review published on April 1. If it had, one would be tempted to ask ‘Is Ms Lakritz (pause between the syllables when you read her name) a real person?’

    What she has managed to do, however, is question the qualifications of book reviewers, for which we should all be grateful, and she has also stimulated great interest in her next review.

  • angel guerra

    In today’s world we live in an open system. In the old world systems could be closed. No longer. Post guards to preserve culture and they will only serve as antique props around which the rest of the world flows. The temple now holds the rabble who challenge the well-healed and true democracy reigns. Although if I were well-healed I’d call it anarchy. O what a state we’re in Groucho.

  • michel

    Instead of questioning the authority of the critic, how about refuting her assertions?

    It seems to me book reviews should serve readers, not the literary community. (disclosure: I am a reader, a reviewer, and a member of the community)

  • barb

    Lakritz is a reductive writer who seems unaware of modern conventions of literature and lacks the ability to look beyond the obvious. Her criticism of no plot, bleak settings, and “real” conversation in Munro are not unusal of 75% of contemporary fiction and not enough to condemn any book. If Lakritz was a perceptive reader, not even a literary one, just a perceptive one she would notice the complexity of human interactions and layers of character development in each of Munro’s stories. Lakritz inablity to read beyond the obvious and her pride in her reductivism, and reactionary approach to fiction is dangerous. I believe good writing opens peoples’ minds to other possibilities and enriches one’s experience of every day world, Munro’s writing does so, Lakritz’s reviews on the other hand fail to do so and strangely she is proud of her failure.

  • Paul

    >Lakritz is a reductive writer…

    This is interesting: a literary technocrat (what else can you call someone who condemns a writer using obscure jargon like “reductivism”?) who thinks Lakritz’s “reactionary approach to fiction is dangerous”. What are we supposed to say to that? ‘Da, Commissar Barb! It’s off to the cultural re-education camp in Siberia for Lakritz!’ In an effort to bring us back to reality from whatever Marxist-Deconstructionist fairyland that came from, I’ll just remind us that we’re talking about short stories here, not the Bolshevik Revolution. Heaven forbid that anyone should be “reactionary” enough to criticize literary orthodoxy…

  • barb

    Thanks Paul for keeping it real! I do not know what a literary technocrat is because apparently we do not speak the same “jargon!” But speaking as a writer of “short stories” I simply ask that reviewers be held to as high standards of writing as writers are. Lakritz is asking Munro for writing with depth and substance yet her review lacks those things not to mention a familiarity with the subject she is writing about. And sorry Paul but real criticism challenges in order to say something about the writer’s vision of the world or Canadian writing in general. Lakritz just enjoys disagreeing with everyone and attacking what she delusionally conceives, as you put it, “literary orthodoxy”. Because of course we have to stand up to those freeloading literary snobs trying to keep us perceptive hard-working joes down. We all know that Munro and the rest of them just write for the glory and the big bucks writing lit in Canada entails! I for once want to see Lakritz attack a real target, she should go after her Calgary Herald editor who’s subotaging her career by allowing her to write book reviews!

  • http://www.moonbook.com Kenneth Neufeld

    I saw the Lakritz “slam” of Munro when it was originally published. The Calgary Herald has declined substantially in its book coverage in the last 5 years. I myself wrote a review for the Herald a few years ago when Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” was published. At the time Lakritz was simply another columnist who occasionally wrote reviews of the sort of books that had local appeal and few literary pretensions. This is the kind of book she understands most readily. However, the Herald rarely publishes reviews by independent writers anymore, and publishes fewer reviews altogether, so Lakritz ended up getting the Munro by default.

  • http://soundsand.wordpress.com Steven Teasdale

    I’d have to agree with Derek – this review is awful, one of the worst I’ve seen in a major newspaper. I have no problem with critics not liking Munro, but it is fairly obvious that Lakritz did not even bother to read much, if any, of the book in question. Rather, it appears she just restates some typical clichéd prejudices against CanLit in order to satisfy some pre-conceived notions about Munro. Perhaps, as suggested by others, she didn’t want read the book in the first place and “phoned it in”.

    I’m not familiar with Lakritz’s work, so she may otherwise be a fine political journalist. But this book review is certainly not, in my mind, something that should have been published.

  • Wayne

    It’s nice to see any kind of critique of Alice Munro — I’ve always felt that she is extremely overrated, with many readers confusing the preciousness of many of her stories and characters with real literary talent.

    What bothers me most about Lakritz’s review, though, is her implication that lots of plot = good story. That’s not it at all: fiction, and definitely anything that calls itself LITERARY fiction, should have language and words as its prime mover, not mere narrative. It’s all about style, not content, just as Nabokov and John Metcalf are always saying.

  • Catherine Lloyd

    An excellent discussion at last! And we have Lakritz to thank for it. I adore Munro. I have not read the collection of stories referenced in the review, but I would probably adore them with or without a review. A reader develops a relationship with the voice of an author. I trust Munro. When I pick up her books, I settle down. I know I’m in capable hands. I feel the same about Robertson Davies and David Adams Richards.

    However, I did not meet Alice until I was in my early 40s. I would not give her to my 21 year old son and expect him to “get it.” The real beauty of real literature is that it is patient. It waits for us to grow into it and allows us grow out of it. I grew out of many great writers! Nationality has absolutely nothing to do with the pleasure or the yuck of a book. Put a stake in the CanLit thing. Do reviewers reference CanLit because of the US or is it meant to be insulting? What does it mean exactly? It strikes me as provincial.

    The best comment in this trail was Shaun Smith…bloody hilarious!

  • kenny p.

    Wow, someone has the temerity to say that Alice Munro’s stories are nothing but a lot of lilac-scented wind! Bravo! I thought it was my dirty little secret. That I hated her stories and that they are insufferably boring, the products of a not incredibly nice and very old woman who always goes on and on, but always seems to be skating around the story of a woman who left a man for another man who made her feel more or less complete, or the story of a woman who’s man left her and then she found a man who made her feel more or less complete, or a story about a woman who always yearned to leave or find a man who makes (or made) her feel more or less complete . . . Hawthorn had word for stories like Munro’s: they were called Romances.

    I guess it’s an antiquated form. Harlequin still makes business selling romances, though not in so perfect and eloquent a form as Ms. Munro’s, but they are romances nevertheless.

    Why are we so in thrall to this old cookie anyway? She’s what, about a hundred years old? Her point of view reminds me of an old Protestant Church somewhere in Southern Ontario where alcohol and dancing are not permitted.

    Where are the young lions of Canada? They have no roar, no bite. Quite a milky mess, all in all.

  • Paul

    Wayne says: “It’s all about style, not content”

    That’s the definition of a pretty shallow product. Writing is not style. It’s telling a story, engaging your readers, having a plot, creating characters, building a world, loving language, and using your imagination. Someone who can’t do all of those things really needs to find another line of work.

  • marshall a

    reading Alice Munro reminds me of searching through my grandma’s chest of drawers, with its vague feminine smells, and its frilly little scarves and veils and old lady undergarments, and bundled old letters, all of it sad, past and passing. You know, dead stuff. I can see why so many ladies are thrilled by Munro – they will be like the characters in her stories in time. But for any man to read Munro and to say “My, that is good stuff!” – it’s silly. Read 2666. Bolano’s statuesque, architectonic work makes Munro’s stories look like the fusty little statuettes they are.

  • Sunday

    I recall walking the story-board around my grade nine classroom. Crouched at the ground, bent at the knees (rising action), tall and straight (climax),… and return to the initial pose, crouched at the ground (denouement). Life outside of my grade nine classroom hasn’t been much of a story-board walk. Imagine!

  • Michelle

    I wonder which Alice Munro Kenny P. and Marshall are reading? This is from “Privilege” in The Beggar Maid (published as Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada):

    “The Girls’ Toilet and the Boys’ Toilet each had a protected entryway, which saved having a door. Snow blew in anyway through the cracks between the boards and the knotholes that were for spying…In the heaped snow under a glaze of ice, where the snow had melted and frozen again, were turds copious or lonesome, preserved as if under glass, bright as mustard or grimy as charcoal, with every shading in between.”

    Shortly after that there is a scene in which a group of school kids gathers to watch as “Shortie McGill is fucking Franny McGill!…Brother and sister…” in the entryway of the Boys’ Toilet.

    “No stealing from lunchpails there, no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks; no fucking; no Franny.”

  • http://robertchaplin.ca Robert Chaplin

    I won’t ever say anything bad about Alice, she was smart enough to leave Jack.

  • http://robertchaplin.ca Robert Chaplin

    sometimes I get the little peoples names wrong. I meant Jim.
    So to put a cap on this, I wont ever say anything bad about Alice, she was smart enough to leave Jim.

  • MEPTBEЦ

    Хм… :) Вы бы знали что про Вас пишут в других блогах :)

  • Dwayne

    Here, here!

  • Dwayne

    Barb, I know I’m a little late here, but you bring up a good point in that a lack of plot is evident in 75% of contemperary fiction. I argue, if that’s the case, then someone should at least share the memo … when did plot go out of style? When did literary fiction writers suddenly become exempt from having to tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end? Also it seems that you’ve had a rich experience reading Munro. What are you doing that the rest of us, who seem to think Munro SUCKS, are not doing? Is there a certain way one should read “literary fiction?” I believe there’s a disconnect between literary writers and general readers. Especially since with every single literary fiction book that’s published, you got some new writer trying to re-invent the rules of storytelling, which doesn’t allow society to adjust, much less understand what’s going on in the story. So I think there’s frustration on both sides … literary writers want to be free to explore, but at the same time when your telling someone a story it’s your responsibility as a writer to ARTICULATE your point … or figure out a way to get it across. If you don’t you can’t blame the readers. It’s like talking to someone in Chinese that doesn’t speak Chinese. Can you blame them for getting frustrated after a while?

  • Keith McQ

    Bravo to Alice Munro for her Nobel laurels! After the ugly, tabloid name calling directed at her recently this is a happy turn of events. Blowhards who attack her writing by making personal attacks do nothing to advance literary dialogue. If you don’t like her writing, say so without inventing laughable Harlequin comparisons which make it evident you have not read or understood Alice Munro The cheap shots about her age are embarrassing. Go back to your Kardashian clippings or start a brave, anonymous hate campaign on Facebook.

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