The Critical Flame Commits to a Whole Year of ONLY Women Writers & Writers of Color


The Critical Flame is a small literary magazine and its editor Daniel Pritchard has decided to commit this magazine to doing one small thing to fight gender and racial disparity in literature. I admire Pritchard’s move, it’s the right one to make. Here at Gently Read Literature, I’ve made it a point to feature women reviewers and to review women. I’m hoping that soon, GRL will be able to mirror The Critical Flame.

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In Which The Critical Flame Dedicates One Year to Women Writers and Writers of Color

Women writers and writers of color are underserved and undervalued by the contemporary literary community. The phenomenon has been well documented by critics such as Roxane Gay and Ruth Franklin, and by organizations like VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (n.b. I am a member of the VIDA board). This disparity deserves greater attention from academics and social scientists, who could at least bring some much-needed rigor (and funding) to bear. It is vital that we uncover the mechanisms that produce this disparity. You can’t fight what you cannot see, as the adage goes.

What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit, everywhere from major publishing houses to small literary journals. As far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers—women, African Americans, latinos, etc.—are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality.

This is all disappointingly banal. Today’s patterns of exclusion echo the ones we find all throughout our society, with little change over the last three decades. Regardless of what some pundits might argue, we are not post-race or post-men; we are not post-anything today except, I sometimes fear, reasonable hope.

In his iconic address, “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace speaks about the reflexive consciousness of our perceptions and values: the awareness of a choice between our culturally-mediated default interpretation of the world, and something else. When we are at our best, that something is full of empathy, humanity, and compassion. But, the ability to choose our own value-filter exists only when we are aware that there is already a default, and that there is a choice. If this is so, then it seems that either the literary community has not realized the choice yet, or has chosen not to change. I’m not sure which is more disheartening.

Silence on this literary disparity has not been the problem over the past few years. Inertia has. Many editors seem immobilized by their options: either admit their failings and allow a bruise to the ego, or brush off the critique with grand claims about quality and editorial judgment. In one iteration, an unappealing act of self-flagellation that may well harm their own publication by alienating certain cultural power centers. In the other, adherence to a relatively painless status quo. Duty in conflict with conscience creates a difficult choice, even for the most moral person.

However, as I’ve written before, nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control. So, while The Critical Flame may not be a powerhouse of the literary world, we have yet decided to embark on a project that will help our readers, at the very least, perceive and evaluate the literary landscape differently. If there is a cycle of criticism / reviews, book sales, and publishing trends that perpetuates the unjust inequalities we’re seeing today, then CF will act in some small measure to break it.

Beginning with the May 2014 issue, The Critical Flame will dedicate one year of its review coverage wholly to women writers and writers of color.

CF will continue to publish well-written, insightful, long-form critical essays and reviews, all of which will cover women writers and writers of color, just as we did (without any advance planning) in the current issue.

I see no conflict between duty and conscience. CF is small, independent, and all-volunteer: our livelihoods do not depend on its financial success, so we are freer than some others (capitalism, literature, and marginalization—consider that a call for papers, ye writers). Also the often-cited dichotomy between quality and equality is, to my mind, bullshit. There are more good books than could ever be covered by any single publication; every issue’s selection of titles is just as much a result of luck, networking, and taste as it is of quality. This project presents a great opportunity to publish in-depth essays about undervalued writers, books, and traditions—what could be more exciting for a literary editor?

But this project will not succeed without the help of our contributors; and no doubt some of our readers will have feedback, questions, and concerns as well. Please feel free to get in touch via email. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Daniel Evans Pritchard
Editor

Daniel Pritchard

Daniel E. Pritchard is the editor and publisher of The Critical Flame. His poetry and criticism can also be found at Little Star, Fulcrum, Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Idiom, and elsewhere.

The Conversation Contintues


DSCN3270Stacia Fleegal has written an excellent post that keeps the discussion going on Sandra Simonds et al’s drive to get the Poetry Foundation to turn a portion of its immense resources toward helping poets in need.

 

Here is the link to Fleegal’s piece http://www.staciamfleegal.com/2013/10/open-letters-closed-minds-yellow.html & a excerpt:

I was going to just tweet about it and let it die: “Open letters are the bunnies of the written word–they just keep making more of themselves.”

But I got really upset and figured the most productive thing to do was to pledge my grievance, take my fight to the one place where it makes the most sense, where people will really care…my poor neglected blog.

Womp womp.

Poet Sandra Simonds did it better. She wrote a much-needed and increasingly publicized open letter to the Poetry Foundation asking, in a nutshell, for them to step up and help poets in economic need.

You know, to do its job, the one it purports to do bigger and better than anyone else.

Poetry-Foundation-Logo-horiz

Also, Simonds has share that there is actual progress being made at the Poetry Foundation. If we keep the discussion going, we could very well see needful action taken.

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Winter Issue


Well, it’s here in time for the new year–the first subscription-based issue of Gently Read Literature. GRL’s 2013 Winter Issue is packed with quality, in-depth reviews and essays.

 Subscribe & get your copy today! A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF. Via PayPal ( https://www.paypal.com/webapps/mpp/make-online-payments ) to the email address gentlyreadlit@ymail.com rr mail a check payble to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Table of Contents

Sigh Eternally: CL Bledsoe on Adam Clay’s poetry collection “A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World”

A Beginning For an Author Who Obviously Isn’t a Beginner: David Atkinson on Molly Ringwald’s novel “When It Happens To You”

Cycles of Time, Notes to a Tune: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s poetry collection “Prelude to Air from Water”

The Horse Doesn’t Always Flow: Nicole Contreras on Leslie Scalapino’s hybrid work “Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows”

Muddled & Luscious Residue: Todd McCarty on Ryan Teitman’s poetry collection “Litany for the City”

Ne’er-Do-Wells Who Plunder: CL Bledsoe on Dan Boehl’s poetry collection “Kings of the Fucking Sea”

Wild Prospecting: CL Bledsoe on Daniel Pyne’s novel “A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar”

More Language, More Linkages, More Minds, More Memes: Paula Koneazny on Laura Solomon’s poetry collection “The Hermit”

Kurt Brown’s The Pictorial Impulse: The Poem as Camera and Brush

Tom Bradley’s Foreword to the New Edition of My Hands Were Clean

The Friendly Highbrow: Heather Lang on Matthew Zapruder’s poetry collection “Come On All You Ghosts”

The Lyric Mode: Christopher Schaeffer on Dorothy Lasky’s poetry collection “Thunderbird”

Don’t Doubt Language: Jennifer Jean on Elain Equi’s poetry collection “Click & Clone”

The Transvaluated Body: Gary Sloboda on Christian Hawkey poetry collection “Citizen Of”

The Perfect and The Imperfect: Glenda Burgess on Gretchen Henderson’s novel “The House Enters the Street”

Smashing the Masks: Michelle Ovalle on Amal al-Jabouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation”

Fluid Ease: Ann E. Michael on Elaine Terranova’s poetry collection “Dames Rocket”

What is Polish Poetry Like Today?: Mike Walker on Jacek Gutorow’s poetry collection “The Folding Star”

Deep Family in the High North: Kirsten Sworts on Melinda Moustakis’s short story collection “Bear Down Bear North”

Longing: Sara Habein on Kirsten Scott’s novel “Motherlunge”

Rural Gothic Literature: Casey Pycior on Jon Boilard’s novel “A River Closely Watched”

Flouting the Rules: Garry Craig Powell on Tom Williams’s novella “The Mimic’s Own Voice”

A Reckoning on the River:  Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Water and Abandon”

The Ghost Behind the Page: Author Revealed by Aine Greaney


There are two novels on my nightstand: an already-finished paperback by a popular male author, and a half-read hardcover by an equally popular female author. As a creative writer with a busy day-job, I’m mostly a nighttime reader. After a hectic day and commute, there’s nothing I love more than to switch on the bedside lamp and prop up my pillows and lose myself in a good story. It’s a coincidence, not literary bias, that both of my current nightstand novelists are British. Both are contemporary tales set in the U.K., and both books are about modern families in crisis. Each has something significant and universal to say about 21st-century life. The paperback is yellow. The hardcover is orange. So let’s call the male author Mr. Yellow Jacket. And let’s call the female author, Ms. Orange Peel.

Although I can’t wait to see how things turn out for Ms. Orange Peel’s family in turmoil, I don’t really want this 231–page novel to end. When I treat myself to one of this author’s books, I’m never ready to say goodbye. But no worries. Two or three months from now, I’ll pick up another of Ms. Orange Peel’s books, in which I will immerse myself in her characters’ squabbles and infidelities and uncertainties.

Ms. Orange Peel is among that small group of authors who appears again and again on my night stand. I’m a loyal reader. When I fall for an author, male or female, I fall hard. I commit to the long-term relationship. By contrast, I had to force myself to finish Mr. Yellow Jacket’s book, all the while wondering why I didn’t just quit and abandon. In fairness, I read it while I was in bed with a bad winter cold. So I wasn’t really looking for anything too deep. And truthfully, I did skip over some of the longer parts.

This is my second go-round with Mr. Yellow Jacket. Lured by the reviews and a particularly long author-interview on National Public Radio, I gave him a second chance. His books are cleverly plotted, and the writing is deft and witty. But as I add his book to the library’s booksale donation pile, I couldn’t tell you the name of one character in there. So this is goodbye for Mr. Yellow Jacket and me. We’re all through.

Why are some competent and well-reviewed books so forgettable? And, as readers, why do we commit to some authors and not to others?

So much of reading fiction is about personal taste. I’ve lost count of the number of New York Times bestseller books that I’ve found boring or shallow or confusing. And of course, there’s the issue of literary versus mainstream. Fast paced versus ponderous. Funny versus serious. And there are times when even our favorite authors disappoint. Or, depending on what’s going on in our own lives at the time, our tastes evolve or do a complete 180-change. But even within our preferred genres, our preferences are all about how an author uses language. It’s about the author’s subject matter. It’s also about the book’s setting (I despise books set in suburbia, USA), and the writer’s distinct narrative voice.

In my author-school days, Rule Number 1 was to never insert yourself between the story and the reader. Yet, I believe that too many modern fiction authors eclipse themselves completely from the work. As we read their books, we cannot sense the presence of an author-ghost behind the pages. While the story is clever or exciting or readable, the narrative provides no window into that author’s sensibilities or philosophies or attitudes. Quite simply, there’s no author there.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no great fan of the tell-all memoir in which we know every sordid nuance of a writer’s (and her family’s) life. And I hate those manipulative, tear-jerker stories that are really just literary gum-ball machines. Insert money. Get emotions. Equally, I don’t shy away from fictional or non-fiction stories about tough things. In fact, some of the world’s best writing has emerged from repressive regimes (A Thousand Splendid Suns) or bloody world wars (Pat Barker’s fabulous World War I novels) or genocidal atrocities (Elie Weisel’s works). But whether the topic is light hearted or harrowing, I want more than a story. I want more than an author’s extravagant vocabulary or his ploy to gain the critics’ attention or a larger publisher’s advance.

In a February 2011 post at the Guardian’s book blog, Gabriel Brownstein’s compares the critical response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom versus the response to Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. Although both novels were released by two American authors on very similar themes, and both are “ambitious books that examine America before and after 9/11,” Franzen’s book reached instant stardom. His was the automatic shoe-in as the “great American novel.” Brownstein acknowledges Freedom’s scope and amplification. But he points to the difference in the reader-author relationships: “Franzen is dancing with you, sure…but his characters exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader; it’s addressed to judges and crowds.”

As I sit there propped against my nighttime pillows, I’m not a literary judge or critic. And as a reader, I’ve never, ever belonged to the “in” crowd. So I want an author who’s with me. Who subtly reveals himself to me. I want a deep, thoughtful writer. Someone I can still respect in the morning.

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Aine Greaney is an Irish-born author and essayist now living north of Boston. Her latest novel, DANCE LESSONS, was released in April 2011, while her instructional book, “Writer with a Day Job,” (Writers Digest Books) will be released in June 2011. She’s also published short fiction, personal essays and feature articles, and she teaches creative writing workshops to adults and teens.

Khurshid Alam’s Investigative Poetry—An Interpretation on Subject, Treatment, and Technique


a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data.
— J.H. Prynne, Poems.

I
Investigative Poetry

Investigative poetry is history in verse with investigative tinge and so it can also be called history poesy. Investigative poetry, to be recognized as a separate genre, requires much critical work into the making of the canon and creation of the works of the best crafts. Though Charles Olson and Edward Sanders have done worthy works towards creation of the crafts and standardization of the convention, it requires waddling yet deeper. Olson and Sanders believe that the trend is old one but because of governments’ tyranny from time to time the poets who were exploring had to backtrack or disguised their identity or presented their writings in codes so they are not explicit. In support of this opinion Sanders provides a series of the cases against the poets carried out by the political parties, governments, police and other agencies in his valuable book Investigative Poetry: The Content of History Will Be Poetry (1976, Blake Route Press).

History of investigative poetry is old one that began, Sanders traces, since William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and Experience1 and has been well practiced by many other poets since such as P. B. Shelly, King George, William Pitt et al.2 ‘It is therefore my belief that virtually every major poet’s work in France and America for the past 100 years has prepared the civilization for the rebirth of history poesy.’3

Investigative poetry explores the reality of the conscious mind working behind the truth of the “representative history”. It is different from investigative journalism in the way that it is simply not limited to exploring a truth but shaking a man to the bone. In investigative journalism the primary purpose is to detect a truth in as simple ways as possible. While investigative poetry explores the truth with a mix of literary approach so it can reach to the majority and can make the people believe it.

II
Interpretation

What makes investigative poetry a separate genre is its approach: subject used for composing the investigative poetry, the treatment the poet uses in writing this genre, and the techniques.

Subject
History should be the rib of investigative poetry. But we have wider choice of picking up the historical records. One from the past; and second from the contemporary period. Past history has the potential to be the frame of the investigative poetry; but it lacks validity in some cases than others. Past history suffers from a chronic dispute that it is a “representative history” in many cases that a political government wants to have as such. And an investigation into the fact of the representative history or the past history can be alleged to be merely speculative which may attract arguments both in favor of it and against. Such speculation can lead to a wider platform of agreement and disagreement in the public domain and may meet a futile end. For there are people who may stand in support of the records of the representative history against those who suspect another sort of reality or who raise doubt to the representative history. Investigative treatment therefore can be accused to be biased as the data against a past historical record can be gathered only from sources that may be or may not be valid.

Contemporary history is a more fertile field as the facts behind a record can be under scanner of one and all in the present age. Even if there are disputes, investigation can be directed to a more unbiased treatment. For even the investigation can be under scanner and the present age can support with more acceptable approvals. Therefore, the content of contemporary history should be preferred for the content of investigative poetry.

Treatment
In investigative poetry, investigative treatment should always be prominent. However mere “description of historical reality”4 is not enough in itself. For investigative poetry in that way would be nothing more than the representative history in verse, which derides of the very reason of investigation. Why yet another description of history at all! Investigation should bring out a new truth of the historical records so that the people are turned to think twice on the records as they come up and speculate themselves.

Investigative poetry should bring out a new truth altogether or should highlight the underlying feelings that the people may already be feeling but they do not find words to express or they do not have any clue to or are too busy in their life to raise their browse. The poets then should play the role of giving voice to the people and shake them to the bone.

Investigation does never mean always going against a record rather it is about delving deeper into the records and finding out the ulterior motives that might have led to that history. It is about investigating a possible hidden agenda behind the historical record.

Impartiality in the treatment of investigative poetry is one of the important factors. Investigative poetry should be free of all “-isms”. ‘Investigative poesy is freed from capitalism, churchism, and other totalitarianisms…’5 Though it is a challenging task as while investigating, the poet may take supports of some records. These supports may themselves be a part of some “ism”. Here the responsibility of a poet must be to jerk off all the belongings or at least the poet’s effort should be not to take the side of any “ism”. ‘Bards (should) “make reality,” or, really, they “make freedom” or they create new modes of what we might term Eleutherarchy, or the dance of freedom.’ 6

Impartiality may lead to discovering the truth. The poet, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, should play the role of “the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” which strives ‘for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty.’

Techniques
Data proofing: The use of data is at the prime in investigative poetry. Investigative poetry should be stuffed with data upon data to validate the perception. Little should be left to the individual interpretation so that the readers do not find data too hard to believe. Essentially ‘Relentless pursuit of data’7 should be directed to ‘know the new facts early.’ (Olson, Charles. The Human Universe and Other Essays, p 134). The data should include, though not be limited to, photos, tape recordings, videotapes, microfilms etc. Flow-charts, graphics, indexing, and citing instances should be taken wide use of.

Use of Date, Time, Place: Investigative poetry must always use date, time, and place and people involved while describing history or filling ‘the area of darkness’ in history. This is important to validate the facts. Now is the era when the poets should not resort to using symbols for writing on history (as William Wordsworth had to). We live in a free time guaranteed by the constitution, thanks to the democratic rules of the land; and even if we risk our life we must yet give a try. Risking is worthier than submitting. That was the purpose of Socrates when he preferred to take poison but refused to submit and backtrack from his findings. Thanks to the first martyr for truth in the recorded history.

Meter: Any meter can be acceptable but free verse is best suitable given the uncertain themes and subjects of the investigative poetry. It can be best described in the words of Charles Olson as Projective Verse, a verse form written in the open or COMPOSITION BY FIELD that is controlled by the union of breathing and listening of the poets. A verse form that comes from the heart and goes straight to the ear suiting the themes and subjects of the investigative poetry; and is not necessarily composed around the meters. It conveys the meaning and purpose of the verse spontaneously. A verse that can be engaged in whenever and wherever the poet is.

Example
One of the best examples of an investigative poem is by Edward Sanders; however every poem should not necessarily have all the elements of investigative poetry:

About 1789
William Blake move to small house
on south side of Thames

got cooking there
on Prophetic Books

decided through visits and advice of the
received ghosts of his brother Robert

to design in reverse relief on etched
copper plates, both poem and design —

and then to adorn the printed-
poem with individual paintings

thank you, o ghost.

Hand-help press
Hand-etched copper plates
Hand-pigmented poem-glyphs
The Hand! The Hand!

And as he fashioned and painted more and more of his
books
He moved
Toward
Soul-Scroll.

Unintelligent Design: The Collected Works of Alice Munro, Chronicling Imperfect Lives in an Imperfect World by Eileen Austen


Before I begin I must start with a confession–I grew up stateside, west of the Lake Huron country where Munro’s Canadian stories are rooted. Her descriptions of the flat rolling land, the blustery, snowy, cold winters and hot summers full of fresh water swims and wild Queen Ann’s Lace, evoke memories of my own experience. And, although I am younger than Munro, the ethos and echoes of small town life, with its sharply delineated social cleavages, clearly resonates with me. I am naturally drawn to her writing and predisposed to appreciate each and every word.

Detractor’s contend that her work is parochial, rarely stepping outside the familiar boundaries of Ontario or British Columbia; she is stuck on questioning the mores of the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties; her plot lines, especially those appearing in later works such as Runaway and Too Much Happiness, are contrived, awkward and rambling, and her focus is far too narrow, concentrating on the lives of women and girls at the expense of broader subjects. Each objection is poised to argue that her work, while abundant, fails to achieve universal appeal.

David Schneider sums these complaints up neatly in his review of Munro’s nineteen- ninety-seven edition of Selected Stories:

A female protagonist has had a hard rural childhood in impoverished Great Depression era Ontario, in the country around Lake Huron. A tragedy occurs – usually offstage, but there are loads of wacky or weird relatives – molesters, drunks, suicides, lunatics and general eccentrics. She perdures, makes it to college, marries, then has kids and often moves to western Canada. The marriage falters – usually his fault, according to the POV of the narrator. She strays, usually with a blue collar sort, and lives a life of artistic decadence and emotional weakness. She has travails with her own kids- usually daughters that are as headstrong as she, and then refuses to age gracefully. (Schneider, 1)

Even if his description were entirely accurate, which it is not, this alone is not reason to conclude her work lacks ecumenicity. Who wants to take Joyce out of Ireland? How far did Woolf stray from her own milieu or Chekhov from his native soil? It is not the tableau but the feast upon it that matters. In fact, I believe her genius and its increasing recognition, evidenced by her receipt of the 2009 Mann Booker International Prize, is found precisely in what Schneider deplores. True, she mines similar material over and again. What is unique and uncanny about her endeavors is that despite the predictable time, place and subject, each story succeeds in telling us something new and important about ourselves. In the midst of small town libraries and quaint, unrushed Sunday suppers, she manages to reveal universal truths, not often pleasant, about the vagaries of men and women as they seek to find how to live.

One other major criticism of Munro’s work is that since she first began writing, she has been an old woman trying to recreate her life, looking back with fabricated vision. Here too, I disagree. In Powers (Runaway) Nancy, the protagonist, says “she believes in what she is doing, that what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.” (Munro, 287) Take one good look at it – this is what Munro does so well. She extracts a skein from the past, unwinds its many threads and unearths them countless times in order to better understand the here and now. Indeed, Munro is nothing less than the consummate observer and reporter on the human condition; this is why her work endures.

Does Munro examine the world through a chromosomal lens? Absolutely, but then so did Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and scores of other male writers. While still a young writer, one of the first conflicts Munro confronts is the tension between wanting to expand her mind and the binding grip of love and marriage. But to believe that in today’s parlance, what she seeks is balance, is a huge mistake. Balance is not what she seeks, the mundane juggling of domesticity and the demands made of an artist. She is expressing something far deeper and more intrinsic.

Pens can be weapons and Munro plunges hers straight through to the core conflict women have faced since Lilith was written out of Genesis – to assert independence and risk rejection or submit to drowning in a flood of social, personal and intimate expectations in the hope of obtaining love. The temptation in thinking about her work is to marginalize Munro as an ardent feminist or spokesperson for female emancipation. Whether or not this is true is secondary; what matters most in her stories is that no one fares particularly well in love – man or woman.

Throughout literature, mining the mind/body dilemma is rich with reward. Rebecca Goldstein and the early works of Doris Lessing provide great examples. But Munro goes beyond their exploration finding fault not just with the treatment of women, but with the entire, enigmatic design of the male/female dialectic. There is one, inescapable truth in her stories. Men and women and children need one another – the survival of the species depends on it. This truth is followed by an unavoidable question: Why then is it so difficult for people, particularly those in love, to reconcile their differences and find peace together?

I believe her conclusion is nothing less than questioning the construct of our entire species. How else can our behavior toward one another be explained? If any punishment results from picking that apple, it is to suffer in life and love, because try as we might, we are governed by larger forces. Munro places her characters under a powerful microscope. Observe any two people, I think she is saying, and you will find all the proof necessary to form this conclusion: there is little evidence of intelligent design in the universe.

Without assigning any religious connotation, one way to view her work is to conclude that her characters emerge onto the page stripped down, primeval, stained with something comparable to original sin. We are endowed with the ability to imagine perfection but hopelessly flawed in our capacity to attain it. This is not meant to be judgmental or persuasive—no soap box here. Munro is simply being her sapient self, telling it as she sees it.

Does she tell it with greater acuity through the voice of a female narrator? Whether relayed in first or third person, her narrator of choice is undoubtedly feminine. In her view women are more conflicted in love than men, more vulnerable to psychological and physical harm brought on by both men and women, mothers, fathers and lovers included, and more subject to social constraints imposed upon them largely by the laws of men. Women are closer to her own experience and certainly as she frames them, the more interesting and obvious choice to carry the weight of her fiction.

In her early work, and to date only novel, the Lives of Girls and Women lays the groundwork for issues Munro will go on to explore over more than a half-century of work. Setting is determinant and what happens to her characters cannot be divorced from the northern earth they walk upon. Yet, fate is mercurial, plot structure uncertain, “In that world people could go down in quicksand, be vanquished by ghosts or terrible ordinary cities; luck and wickedness were gigantic and unpredictable; nothing was deserved, anything might happen; defeats were met with crazy satisfaction.” (Munro, 31) Through the eyes of Del, the coming of age narrator, she grasps at understanding gender and work. When speaking of her aunts and other farmer’s wives and rural ladies like them, she observes: “They respected men’s work beyond anything: they also laughed at it. … And they would never, never meddle with it; between men’s work and women’s work was the clearest line drawn and stepping over this line, any suggestion of stepping over it, they would meet with light, amazed, regretfully superior, laughter.” (Munro, 38) Such humiliation put one out, exiled you beyond the pale, “The worst thing I gathered, the worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you.” (Munro, 44)

Certain character defects depicted by Del appear in later stories where they assume even greater meaning. Ambition is laid bare in subtext, revealed in a seemingly harmless question, “Have you always – been interested – in country life?” (Munro, 43) Del finds this chilling, a warning, “Didn’t he think he was somebody! He thinks he’s somebody…… Pretensions were everywhere.” (Munro, 44) Special peril applies to female aspirations. Del senses the cupidity of her aunts over various achievements of her mother, “…and I would feel how contemptuous, how superior and silent and enviable they were, those people who all their lives could stay still, with no need to do or say anything remarkable. I was not so different from my mother but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.” (Munro, 91)

Social class emerges as another inevitable aspect of setting. Del asks, “Do we hate those girls, to whom we were unfailingly obsequiously pleasant? No. Yes. We hate their immunity, well bred lack of curiosity, whatever kept them floating, charitable and pleased, on the surface life of Jubilee, and would float them on to sororities, engagements, marriages to doctors or lawyers in more prosperous places far away. We hated them because they could never be imagined entering the Town Hall toilets.” (Munro, 173) But love is the invisible, most surreptitious force facing a girl and although optimistic, Del’s mother is the first to let her know that growing up and giving into love is the most hazardous thing that can happen to a woman: “There is a change coming, I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection to men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals. He shall hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse. Tennyson wrote that. It’s true.” Use your brains her mother advises, “Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake, of being –distracted, over a man, your life will never be your own. You will get the burden, a woman always does.” (Munro, 193)

Of course love finds Del but not where expected. She is an honor’s student, ostracized for using her brains by all but one gifted, motivated fellow. They attempt to make love but he is clumsy and ignites no spark. Instead Del finds ardor in a poor, uneducated boy from church and is baptized in the “dreamy purr” of his arms. In describing her experience of him, she says “The mouth closed frankly around the nipple seemed to make an avowal of innocence, defenselessness, not because it imitated a baby’s breast but because it was not afraid of absurdity. Sex seemed to me all surrender – not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility.” (Munro, 239)

Del is surprised then at her boyfriend’s need to break her will after he proposes marriage. Who do you think you are becomes his accusing battle cry. She does not capitulate and thinks she can leave him undamaged. But as her mother warned, she gets sidetracked. She daydreams about warm thighs and burgeoning orgasms instead of concentrating on her scholarship exams, her greatest hope for getting out of Jubilee. She falls short, fails to make the grade, is sabotaged by love.

In her 1978 collection entitled Who Do You Think You Are?, later released as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, Munro raises the stakes. The rural setting, social backwardness, poverty and the eccentricities of love in Royal Beatings, (Selected Stories) mix into a lethal combination so powerful the destruction carries from one generation to the next. When Rose’s mother dies and her father remarries, Flo weds with the understanding that for her, it is a step up the socio-economic ladder, a fragile hold she fears she might lose. Told through a meandering, non-linear plot, the reader learns that Flo is beset with insecurities, jealousies and peasant-like suspicions and she suspects the worst. When Rose challenges her authority and standing, memories of incest, infanticide and murder skew Flo’s vision; this viral, internecine chaos must be stamped out.

Flo enrolls Rose’s father in her mission. She spews forth a list of sins for which Rose is guilty, “her rudeness, and sloppiness and conceit…She mentions her brother’s innocence, Rose’s corruption. ‘Oh don’t you think you’re somebody,’ she says, and a moment later, ‘Who do you think you are?” (Munro, 130) Rose objects and for a moment senses her father’s reluctance and embarrassment but realizes by now she “ought to know she is wrong, in thinking she can count on this. The fact that she knows about it, and he knows she knows, will not make things any better.” She watches as her father’s face fills with “hatred and pleasure.” (Munro, 132) Rose wonders as her father strikes her, “How can this go on in front of such daily witnesses, the linoleum, the calendar with the mill and creek and autumn trees, the old accommodating pots and pans?…..Pots can show malice, the patterns of linoleum can leer up at you, treachery is the other side of dailiness.” (Munro, 133)

Flo realizes she has over reacted but is not really sorry. What’s important is to save face and restore the balance of power she has inspired Rose’s father to maintain. With this story as in many others, Munro leaves out the most important detail: did her husband have sex with his daughter Rose? Are her senses trustworthy or does memory poison her sight? In the aftermath everyone pretends nothing has happened, makes jokes, finds way to make things seem normal, creates “a feeling of permission, relaxation, even a current of happiness in the room.” (Munro, 137) With a paucity of words we learn that things are never patched up, never normal. “After Rose put her in the home, {Flo} stopped talking. She removed herself, and spent most of her time sitting in a corner of her crib, looking crafty and disagreeable, not answering anybody, though she occasionally showed her feelings by biting a nurse.” (Munro, 139)

Rose has her comeuppance. In The Beggar Maid, (Selected Stories) she moves on to become the poor, accomplished, scholarship student who is romanced by an older man, heir to a mercantile fortune. At first Rose is guileless and unimpressed but the positive response by her peers and professors force her to take stock – the bonds of marriage may offer freedom and possibility as well as constraints. Despite his many deficits, sexual prowess among them, and the fear she doesn’t quite love him, she is afraid to turn down his offer, afraid to be ungrateful. After all, Rose says, “only middle class people had choices anyway, that if she’d had the price of a train ticket to Toronto, her life would have been different.” (Munro, 182)

With her change in marital status she acquires additional recognition. Girls admire her diamond ring. People who previously ignored her suddenly take interest. “Oh Rose, isn’t it wonderful! When are you coming back again? We’re going to give a tea for you, the ladies in town all want to give a tea for you.” She observes that “Paths were opening up to her, barriers softening….She dimpled and sparkled and turned her self into a fiancée with no trouble at all.” (Munro, 176)

The unhappiness that follows eventually provokes her to tell her husband that she no longer loves him, and in a moment of inside humor and wit, says “I never loved you.” (Munro, 179) Like many bad partnerships they do not take leave of one another until “nearly mortal damage had been done.” (Munro, 183) Years later, when they see each other in an airport, she is tempted to approach him, deliver the news that she is now happily married. She notes that his birthmark has faded (this blemish a trait common in many of Munro’s men) but his venom toward her for rejecting him is unrelenting. “He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning, face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing.” (Munro, 184) Men, Munro is saying, may also be damaged by love, swallowed whole only to be cast out like common spittle.

Face, (Too Much Happiness) one of Munro’s few stories with a first person, male narrator, probes masculine pride and vanity. Born with a large, mulberry colored birthmark on one side of his face, the narrator is rejected by his father at birth. He says to the narrator’s mother, “What a chunk of chopped liver….You don’t think you’re going to bring that into the house.” (Munro, 141) The house is a large one located in town on a substantial piece of property. The father is wealthy, a person of note; he can’t afford to have this splotch soil his primogenitor. He rejects both mother and son and within a short time ensconces his mistress and her daughter Nancy, a year younger than the narrator, into his guesthouse at the back of the estate.

Home schooled, Nancy is the narrator’s only friend until he is eight or nine years old. Nancy adores him and wants to be like him. One afternoon while playing together, Nancy, hoping to gain his approval, paints her face red. He doesn’t see his face as red; he thinks it’s a soft, fuzzy brown. Outraged, he runs to his mother in tears. “You nasty little beast,” she screams at Nancy followed by a stream of rancor. When Nancy’s mother steps out to see what’s happening, his mother turns on her. “All this poured out of my mother as if there was a torrent of rage, of pain, of absurdity in her that would never stop.” (Munro, 156)

Violence is in the subtext of most of Munro’s stories and it is omnipresent here. After the incident his mother says, “Fetch me my garden shears…..While I’m out here I might as well trim the glads. Some of them are downright wilted.” (Munro, 157) By the time she is finished they are hacked down and strewn every which way. Not one is left standing. For once, though, she prevails over her husband. The mistress is sent away but then so is Nancy, her son’s only friend. He is sent to an all boy school where he is quickly nick-named Grape-Nuts. Years later, his mother tells him that Nancy, whom he never sees again, took a razor to her face, making permanent her desire to be like him. She says of this, “Such deep feelings. Children have.” (Munro, 160)

In The Albanian Virgin (Selected Stories) Munro portrays men and women equally capable of conspiracy and skullduggery. Two story lines run parallel, one concerning Charlotte, a vacationing bookshop owner from Victoria, the other, possibly fantasy and certainly fantastic, about a young woman named Lottar; both are traveling in the Balkans. During an afternoon tour, Charlotte’s guide is stalked and killed by a rival clansman who seeks to settle the score between two families locked into generations of mutual honor killing. This event prompts Charlotte to create a story for a movie. In Charlotte’s rendering, Lottar is caught in the senseless crossfire and taken to an ethnic enclave, where as inadvertent booty, she is expected to become a member of their kula.

Men set the rules and establish the practices in this tribal setting. They sit around polishing their guns and exchanging tales of valor, while the women work. “Knitting is what they did while they trotted back and forth to the spring with their water barrels strapped to their backs, or took the path to the fields or to the beech wood, where they collected the fallen branches. They knitted stockings…..like lightening strokes. Women’s hands must never be idle.” (Munro, 569)

Collegial on the surface, behind Lottar’s back the women cannot resist the temptation of money; they dress her and drape her in jewelry in order to prepare her for sale to a Muslim buyer. She is spared this fate by the intervention of a Franciscan monk who is more concerned about her soul being delivered to heathens than for her physical well being. “Did you know you were being married?” the monk asks. “Is it something you want, to be married.” When Lottar says no, he screams “Take off that gold trash. Take those clothes off her. I am going to make her a Virgin!” (Munro, 574)

To become a Virgin, Lottar must swear to never marry and to assume a male persona. In exchange for this, she is entitled to the privileges of a man – to own a horse, a gun and to wear men’s clothing. Absent a spouse she is likely to be poor. Then again, no one will bother her and she’ll be able to eat with men. Presented with this Faustian proposition, Lottar chooses female revocation in exchange for freedom and assumes a neutered existence.

Angry with her decision, the women strip Lottar of her skirts, bracelets and face paint; she watches as her hair is chopped off and falls to the ground in irregular plaits. When she steps into her trousers the women chide her. “Tomorrow you would have been a bride,” they said. “Now you will never have a son.” (Munro, 574) Afraid the women will try once more to bargain her to the highest bidder, Lottar flees the encampment and follows the monk to the Bishop’s monastery. But, despite her assumption of a male role, the Bishop refuses to let her enter the sanctuary lest her female body defile sacred space.

Plotted with great complexity, Lottar’s journey into the elemental, dark side of male/female social organization is juxtaposed against the contemporary infidelities and eventual break-up of two couples working and studying in Victoria. With the dissolution of their marriages, Munro poses a question: which social formation is more evolved, more treacherous – the tribe or the suburban couple? Which extracts the highest price? And as always in her work, which is the most damaging? The questions leave the narrator unmoored. She says, “I had to get back to the store….but I felt as if I could as easily walk another way, just anyway at all. My connection was in danger, that was all. Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin. Wouldn’t we rather have a destiny to submit to then, something that claims us as anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days?” (Munro, 602)

Destiny and the capriciousness of fate loom large in Munro’s stories. In Chance, (Runaway) a story aptly named, Juliet, the young female narrator is desperate to continue her education but money, or the lack of it, prevents her from realizing her dream. When she is offered a teaching position she is encouraged to take it, to set her sights lower, do something more practical, less ambitious. “Juliet was used to this sort of advice, though disappointed to hear it coming from these men who did not look or sound as if they had knocked about in the real world very eagerly themselves. In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people were quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks – her inability to run a sewing machine or tie a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her was the question.” (Munro, 53)

On the train westward, traveling to start her new job, Juliet is thrown into a consequential encounter; she rejects the advances of one man for another who is far more appealing if predictably less appropriate. The first unhappy man commits suicide by throwing himself under the train while Juliet sits on the toilet and menstruates over the tracks. Convinced she is responsible for the man’s demise Juliet weeps and finds solace in the welcoming arms of Eric. Against custom and without caution she follows Eric to the distant and isolated Whale Bay. Here she encounters his housekeeper and paid protector, Alio. When Juliet asks Alio if she lives in the house with Eric, Alio replies, “No, I do not live here. I live down the hill with my hussband.” (Munro, 77) Her meaning is clear, “that the word hussband carries the weight of pride and reproach.” She is a mere caretaker but Juliet is single, in heated pursuit of her quarry and therefore of questionable character. She is of lesser value.

Like Del, Rose and other female narrators, Munro follows Juliet through a series of stories. Soon (Runaway) tells of Juliet’s return home to visit her ailing mother and retired father who arguably lost his teaching job because of her scandalous situation. She has fallen in love with Eric and is the mother of Penelope, their magnificent, Homeric love-child. Without the warnings of a prescient mother like Del’s, Juliet strikes out against conformity. She consciously refuses to marry.

Juliet’s mother Sara is desperate for her to wed, seeing only the benefits, none of the pitfalls. But Juliet knows too much about her parent’s marriage to be cowed into convention. Juliet’s defiance estranges her from Sara, forms a line of tension that can’t be bridged. Years later, after Sara has died, Juliet recalls their last moments together when she happens upon a letter she’d written to Eric during her time away from him. “Then she thought that some shift must have taken place….Some shift concerning where home was. Not at Whale Bay with Eric but back where it had been before, all her life before. Because it’s what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can.” (Munro, 125) Like the man on the train only far more important, Juliet is left feeling culpable, but in order to be true to herself, she refuses to acquiesce. She’s left with conflicted feelings. To save herself she failed her mother when Sara most needed her.

Mothers and daughters are predestined to clash. Nowhere is this more evident than in Silence, the last of the Juliet trilogy, endowed with one of Munro’s most unreliable narrators. The story opens innocently. Juliet has traveled some distance to visit Penelope, ostensibly at Penelope’s request, to a spiritual retreat where her daughter has been residing for a long but unspecified period of time. On the ferry to the remote island Juliet speaks of her daughter in glowing terms. “I’m spoiled….She’s twenty years old, my daughter – she’ll be twenty one this month, actually – and we haven’t been apart much.” (Munro, 127)

We are told Juliet is surprised when she arrives and finds that Penelope is part of a religious cult; more surprised when her daughter is not there to greet her. A large, domineering woman informs Juliet that her daughter does not wish to see her. She continues to bruise, adding that in her transcendent quest, Penelope blames Juliet for the absence of spiritual direction in her life. For a time Juliet pursues Penelope but is eventually forced to concede – she has lost her daughter, she is not coming back and she doesn’t understand why.

When years later Juliet has a fleeting, chance encounter with Penelope’s childhood friend, it is clear Heather does not know about their schism. She rattles on about Penelope’s five kids, the cost of school uniforms, the inconveniences of living so far north. But she is in a rush, no time to explain. Juliet is left to conclude “You know, we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons…..But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature…..My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn’t those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me.” (Munro, 158) If Juliet does know the reason it is not revealed. Nor are her reasons for not trying to find her bevy of grand kids. This mystery remains with the reader; Munro is not going to tell.

Motherhood and love of children are never portrayed with ease. In Miles City Montana (Selected Stories) Munro describes a young mother as a detached, dislocated observer. “In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide- sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.” (Munro, 378)

Staying focused and not being ground down by the demands of a needy infant are painted with brutal candor in Jarkarta. (Love of a Good Woman) “When she (Kath) nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as to not sink into the sludge of animal function. And she’s nursing so she can shrink her uterus and flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby – Noelle – with precious maternal antibodies.” (Munro, 80)

Kath and her friend Sonje find themselves one day discussing the story Fox by D.H. Lawrence where he claims that a woman can only be truly happy, truly married if she submerges her will into his. To Kath this means defeat; giving in, losing all resistance to passion, having many babies; to Sonje it conjures something ideal and beautiful. Despite Sonje’s husband’s promptings to experiment with sex outside the bounds of marriage, she remains loyal and speaks of loving him “agonizingly.” Kath requires more safety and while she would never think of being unfaithful, it is not because of the depth of her love. It is due to her need to be connected. If she threatened that bond through adultery, “all of her life would blow up in her face …. but she could not say that she loved Kent agonizingly.” (Munro, 97)

Munro twists and turns this tension between the need for consuming love and the need for self protection most adroitly and brilliantly in Passion. (Runaway) Grace, an orphan child raised by a poor but caring aunt and uncle, is expected to assume their modest, if unchallenging business of caning seats for chairs. Grace wants more and continues to attend public schools until she has exhausted what is available to her. Once again an older man offers his sage advice, “telling her this was getting her nowhere since she was not going to be able to go to college.” (Munro, 166) Because college was out of her reach, he suggested she get “a taste of life” leaving Grace to wonder why an educator “did not believe learning had to do with life.” (Munro, 167)

The High School Principal’s idea of living it up is to arrange a summer job for her waiting tables at a lakeside resort. She accepts and it is here that she attracts the attention of Maury, an earnest and reliable fellow, who takes her to see the movie, Father of the Bride. Maury is surprised when Grace does not enjoy the film and Grace is unable to articulate her rage to him. Grace looks at Elizabeth Taylor with dismay. “That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be to be fallen in love with. Then she would become a mother and she’d be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.” (Munro, 164)

Maury’s mother, Mrs. Travers, encourages her son to bring Grace home for dinner. Grace is enchanted with his family, finds excuses to spend time with his grateful, intelligent mother. “In fact she fell in love with Mrs. Traver, rather as Maury had fallen in love with her.” (Munro, 165) After a period of time the assumption of marriage implicitly fills the air; Grace imagines a husband for herself. “He would be handsome, like Maury. Passionate, like Maury. Pleasant physical intimacies would follow.” (Munro, 173) But intimacies are not forthcoming. He felt a need to protect her and “the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance.” (Munro, 173) One afternoon Mrs. Travers warns her against expecting too much, expecting everything from one man. They are discussing Anna Karenina and her prospective mother-in-law reveals to Grace how much she identifies with Dolly, the maid who has to figure out how to do laundry for additional family and friends when they are vacationing in the countryside. “I suppose that’s just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs. Don’t pay attention to me, anyway. You don’t do you?” (Munro, 172)

But Grace is attentive and does listen – she does not want to accept life without exhilaration. Is it a coincidence or a test when Grace cuts her foot and requires medical care? She has a choice. She can venture off with Neil, Maury’s half-brother, a married physician with children, or play it safe, permit Maury to drive her to the hospital. Mrs. Travers suggests she go with Neil, saying “This is good, Grace, you are a godsend. You’ll try to keep him from drinking today, won’t you? You’ll know how to do it.” (Munro, 181) The mystery of this cautionary remark tips the scale for Grace. Washtubs be dammed; the allure of Neil becomes irresistible.

In contrast to Maury’s hesitation or inability to take possession of Grace’s body, Neil’s desperation is overwhelming – he needs to claim her now. Grace, wired with hunger, gladly complies. After, when questioned by Neil about Maury, Grace denies her engagement even as Neil makes it clear he cannot take Maury’s place. Later she remembers his goodnight embrace, his arms wrapped tightly around her, “as if he was telling her she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.” (Munro, 195)

Grace takes a ride with Neil but does not follow him over his suicidal edge. Maury, willing to forgive, asks for a simple affirmation – just tell him that she didn’t want to go with his brother, but Grace finds it too unbearable to lie. She answers with the raw, uncensored truth. “I did want to go,” she says. “She was going to add I’m sorry but stopped herself.” (Munro, 196) It is Mr. Travers who comes to Grace to “tidy things up.” He apologizes for Neil’s terrible alcoholism and hands her an envelope with a check for one thousand dollars. “Immediately she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks it would have been a grand thing to do. But in the end, of course, she was not able to do it. In those days, it was enough money to insure her a start in life.” (Munro, 196)

The undertow of violence and calamity that pulls at Grace in Passion, since after all she might have been killed along with Neil for her transgression, takes on even greater dimension in her latest and possibly final collection, Too Much Happiness. In these stories murder, physical brutality and heinous sexual exploitation take the reader into an even deeper heart of darkness.

In Dimensions, Munro is unmerciful in her depiction of a woman who has been deprived of education, hope or even the minimal expectation that she is valued and appreciated. When one night after an argument Doree does not come home for a night, her husband Lloyd kills their three children. Declared unfit to stand trial, Lloyd is placed in a psyche ward miles away from Doree’s meager job as a motel housekeeper. Nevertheless, Doree takes three buses in each direction to visit him when she can. She is not conflicted by her intellect or desire for independence – she doesn’t know better. On the contrary, she wills her way to forgive him and in thinking about her situation, concludes that “Lloyd, of all people, might be the person she should be with now. What other use could she be in the world…..?” (Munro, 30)

The divide of power between men and women is so uncomfortably explored in Wenlock Edge that it reads more like Hitchcock or King. The set up has elements reminiscent of other Munro stories: the unnamed female narrator; the seamless drop from the present time into memory; the narrator away from home fending for herself in the cruel world; and, the complicit, female cohort, Nina, who wants the narrator to share in her unseemly, compromised existence.

When Nina suggests she should have dinner with Mr. Purvis, her tormentor and provider, she knows what mischief she has put into play. Mr. Purvis’s housekeeper, his perfidious ally, is the one who arrives to deliver the unsuspecting narrator into a nicely decorated den of iniquity. Once inside, and before being introduced to Purvis, the housekeeper calmly demands the narrator to remove her clothing, every last stitch of it, as blandly as if she were announcing the time. The narrator takes this lurid requirement as a challenge and believes she is up to the occasion, “she took it more as a dare than a preliminary to further trespass, and my going along with it had more to do with the folly of pride….more to do with some shaky recklessness than with anything else.” (Munro, 79)

Ultimately her rash decision to go along with Purvis, to sit naked at dinner with her legs open while he dines in a luxurious smoking jacket, is not without consequence. “I would always be reminded of what I had agreed to do,” she later notes, realizing there is no safe place for women. (Munro, 91) The potential for violence against women is ubiquitous, even for smart ones. “I was writing a good essay. I would probably get an A. I would go on writing essays and A’s because that was what I could do. The people who awarded scholarships, who built universities and libraries, would continue to dribble out money so that I could do it. But that was not what mattered. That was not going to keep you from damage.” (Munro, 92)

This notion of female duplicity is further examined in the disturbing waters of Child’s Play. What is particularly horrific about the drowning of the Down’s Syndrome girl is that it is a shared experience. It’s possible that either young woman might have committed their crime alone but there is an unspoken bond between the faux twins, Charlene/Marlene, a shared recognition of a profound personal and cultural understanding. Feminine domesticity abides because women comply. Compliance requires allegiance and allegiance requires hierarchy. Permission is granted to annihilate the violators, “the mice and slugs” who expect they can roam outside the circle and survive.

Managing expectations is at the heart of Too Much Happiness, the title story of this book. It is one of Munro’s few works set outside Canada – in Russia and Sweden – and in another time period, late Victorian. The story draws upon actual history to chronicle the life of Sophia Kovalesy, the first woman to hold an academic post in mathematics at a major European University. In Munro’s imagined depiction of Kovalesy’s life, there is upheaval in the rebellious streets of Moscow and Paris but the lurking danger is not physical; what’s potentially lethal is for Sophia, a woman of substance and accomplishment, to become attached to love.

To make her way in the world Sophia is forced to marry. Young women who wished to study abroad were unable to leave Russia if they remained single. She marries Vladimir, a revolutionary intellectual whom she admires but does not love. “Vladimir had not been a coward but he lacked the manly certainties. That was why he could grant her some equality those others couldn’t and why he could never grant her that enveloping warmth and safety.” (Munro, 295)

Munro contrasts Sophia’s relationship with Vladimir to her feelings about Maksim, an unfaithful lover who neither respects women nor believes in their call for social change. Maksim is masculine, certain of his sexual potency; he has something valuable to offer. “That marvelous assurance he has, that her father had, you can feel it when you are a little girl snuggled up in their arms and you want it all your life.” (Munro, 295) This need is not easily shed and Sophia feels drawn to him despite his obvious failings. He is unable to accept her as both a woman and a scholar and Sophia understands that he views her as a “delightful freak” and something of a fraud; he feels hoodwinked by her charm that hides “a mind most unconventionally furnished, under her curls.” (Munro, 250)

Women too are not immune from holding her suspect. After being awarded the Bordin Prize in Paris, Sophia is showered with attention and compliments. “But they had closed their doors when it came to giving her a job. They would no more think of that than of employing a learned chimpanzee …Wives were the watchers on the barricade, the invisible implacable army…Men whose brains were blowing old notions apart were still in the thrall to women whose heads were full of nothing but the necessity of tight corsets, calling cards, and conversations that filled your throat with a kind of perfumed fog.” (Munro, 267)

On a return passage to Sweden, where Sophia goes to die, her mind fills with consternation. “How terrible it is, Sophia thinks. How terrible the lot of women. And what might a woman say if Sophia told her about the new struggles, women’s battle for votes and places at the universities? She might say, But that is as God wills. And if Sophia urged her to get rid of this God and sharpen her mind, would she not look at her – Sophia – with a certain stubborn pity, and exhaustion, and say, How then, without God, are we to get through this life?” (Munro, 294)

Before dying Sophia spoke to her sisters of her new projects, most notably a novel about her days as a youth that reified something important, that “there was a pulse in life.” She continued, saying, “Her hope was that in this piece of writing she would discover what went on. Something underlying. Invented, but not.” When her daughter comes into the room one last time Sophia’s dying words are thought to be “Too much happiness.” (Munro, 302) They might just as well have been who do you think you are!

Sophia is speaking for Munro when she urges women to get rid of this God. For look what this God has done to women especially, but to men and women both. She is asking the ever present question – why is it so difficult to put all the pieces together? What is it about love that so paralyzes women, so distorts the character of men? How can anyone examine the human condition and conclude that this is evidence of intelligent design? Given the range of tensions between men and women, it’s absurd to believe one can go through life and love unscathed, undamaged. And, who do you think you are if you are foolish enough to even entertain the notion. We make ourselves unhappy muddling through our attempts to triumph over what Carl Sagan kindly refers to as our reptilian brain. Through her keen observations of social constructs, Munro concludes we are primitive in love; it’s embedded in our DNA. To countenance any other reality – to think that it’s possible to live an integrated life of the mind and heart – well that’s just too much to hope for, too much happiness.

Works Cited
Goldstein, Rebecca. The Mind Body Problem. New York: Penguin USA, 1993.
Lessing, Doris. Children of Violence. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc, 1970.
Munro, Alice. The Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Random House, 1971.
—, Collected Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
—, The Love of a Good Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
—, Runaway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2004.
—, Too Much Happiness. New York: Random House, 2009.
Schneider, Dan. “Selected Stories by Alice Munro.” Laura Hird. December 2, 2008. Web.

 

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Eileen Austen has been nominated for several awards including the Kirkwood Prize at UCLA where she was a student in the Extension Writer’s Program. A recent Creative Writing graduate of the low residency MFA program at the University of California, Austen worked with Tod Goldberg, Mary Otis, Deanne Stillman and Mark Haskell Smith. This year Austen was selected to attend and become a member of The Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

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A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages by Bryan Burch


FIRST TEN PAGES: A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages from Dickens to DiLillo, The Good Earth to The Bad Seed, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Last year, I interned at Tin House Books as a “slush-pile” reader. My job, along with the other five or six rotating interns, was to read the first fifty (50) pages of unsolicited agent submissions, make comments and then move on to the next manuscript. We screened the pile to inform the editorial staff of their potential and, in our commentary, supplied key lines of rejection text. The reality – and this appears to be a common opinion amongst slush-pile readers – one knows way before page fifty how much “potential” a manuscript exhibits. That is not to say that most submissions were bad, they weren’t. Tin House only accepted agent submissions, or suggestions from connected sources. In fact, most of the novel manuscripts or short story collections I read were on par with student work from workshops, in grad school, or submitted to The Whistling Fire, a journal I co-edit with a couple of friends. In most cases, the work is good. The language is creative. The plots are often sound. What’s lacking is specificity and direction in support of an overall theme. Some writers call it Tone (with a capital T).

Something happens when a reader commits to an unfamiliar fiction. There are patterns of enjoyment one seeks in order to justify a several hundred-page commitment, similar to, say, choosing a mortgage. As time passes, the page numbers grow and the number of remaining pages shrinks. The reader pays off their debt of time-invested with the satisfaction of a fruitful investment. I wanted to understand the patterns that keep readers reading beyond the first ten pages, so I went home and took all the novels off my shelf and laid them out like old lovers to remember how the affairs began. I picked up fiction at garage sales, like a barfly waiting for cheap beer. I hung out in bookstore aisles gulping down opening pages, before clerks drove me off for fear of copyright indiscretions. I re-familiarized myself with novels I’d read long ago and others I’d only heard about to understand if Gone With the Wind has a better beginning as a book or as a movie, to understand what that guy caught in the rye, and to figure out what it is about Twilight, or Love Story, or Island of the Blue Dolphin that kept different decades of adolescents reading beyond page ten.

From the first ten pages, one cannot glean that Anna Karenina will jump in front of a train, or ascertain what makes this Gatsby so Great. How can one tell, at the beginning, who Frankenstein will be in the end? Literally! I created a blog, suggestively called, First10pages.com so I could put my observations and discoveries in order and formulate some opinions on this question.

In most cases, there are only subtle indications of a story’s ultimate direction. The opening of Gone With the Wind features a trio of teenagers conversing on a front porch, not the sweeping panorama one usually considers when they remember this classic. The grand stuff emerges later in the story, but Tone is clearly established. Even though Margaret Mitchell spends the first many pages describing these three, aristocratic adolescents flirting on a broad, Georgia verandah, interweaving information on their looks, clothing and movements with brief glimpses into their histories, the reader is also made privy to information that has interpretive tension.

The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor.[1]

 

Bottom line, this girl is pretty. She is willful. She has beautiful eyes, a nice rack and the smallest waist in three counties. Even if one knows nothing of Scarlett O’Hara, a girl like this is bound to cause a stir! By parsing out facts about a character, along with the place and time in which they live, Mitchell’s players grow from types into individuals. By the end of page three, one has a very clear picture of Scarlet O’Hara and her two suitors, as well as the tonal inclination that will carry through the entire one-thousand page story. The Scarlett that Mitchell develops in the very beginning of her narrative is the microcosmic reflection of the entire novel’s scope, allowing the reader to experience The Old South through a personal and human portal.

From the beginning, it is necessary to immerse the reader in the physical world of the piece whether that world is as specific as the Empire Grill in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or as sweeping as John Banfield’s The Sea. Author Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, offers four characteristics of a good story opening: it establishes the tone, it immerses the reader in the physical world of the story, it introduces characters and situations, and it keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” (468) Along with Ms. LaPlante’s commentary, I created a list based on the most helpful books I have read and one I highly recommend to all beginning writers, Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. Primarily a book to encourage Macro and Micro editing habits, it provides great support and tangible items to consider in the self-editing process. From these two sources and observations of my own, I created the following list of ten questions to evaluate the first ten pages:
1. What happens in the first sentence: Where am I? Who am I with? What’s wrong?!
2. What happens in the first ten pages: How does it support the opening paragraph and the entry into the story? How intentionally narrow is the scope? A narrower scope, it turns out, creates a more tense beginning, similar to a narrow canyon creating river rapids.
3. Narrative POV: first, second or third person, and how close or how far the reader’s to the main character and the action.
4. Narrative Perspective: WHO is telling the story and how close are they to the reader? Is narrator neutral? Is narrator a character? Is narrator reliable? For instance. Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is voiced by an awkward, first person narrator who is sure of his lowly role in his world giving the story an immediate and present feeling. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is also in the first person, in the form of the main character’s diary, giving it a more distant feel.
5. Language: Is it suitable to the events, agreeable, high falutin’? Are there too many adjectives? Are the verbs active enough to suit the plotted action?
6. Setting: How quickly is the reader grounded in a location and then, what is wrong with this picture? The chafing of character against setting creates the majority conflict. (This, as it turns out, became an important discovery.)
7. Character: Who are they in relation to setting? Do they belong? Are they in the right place at the wrong time? Visa versa?
8. Structure: Does the rhythm, tension and tone support the setting, characters and conflict?
9. Prologue or Thematic Preamble: How does the author attempt to focus or divert the reader’s attention at the opening of the story?
10. Plot Expectations beyond page ten: Based on the first ten pages, what did I expect to occur farther along in the story. Not an exercise in clairvoyance, but an attempt to see how clearly the author set me up for the story’s telling. This was challenging with unfamiliar material, but a whole lot of fun and started some interesting blog comments.

 

Within the first few lines of a novel, an authorial voice – the sound the reader hears – forms in the reader’s consciousness. This voice defines the level of reliability between the reader, the narrator and the story. It designates the amount of intimacy passing between reader and narrator. It also establishes an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story. Notice the difference in style and tone when reading even the short excerpts presented in this paper from the tone of the paper itself. Notice what happens to your sense of serenity as you leave an analytical construct and slip into the opening moments of a fiction, as you enter the unfamiliar.

Consider the authorial voice in these first few lines of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and how they draw the reader into the story. Notice how location and character are woven together in these three uniquely different openings.

When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.[2]

The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.[3]

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.[4]

Without much else but a sampling of language and sentence construction, a reader is alerted to situation and perspective coupled with character and place. In the woods; the Empire Grill and not a street, each give a reader an immediate perspective on a character in a particular location, as well as a strong suggestion of narrative authority. In the second example, from Empire Falls, the reader is placed, in the first few words, into what will become the main character’s home base. Further, the grill itself is in the center of the decaying town of Empire Falls, Maine, which is central to the book with its themes of community, rise and fall, and regeneration. With specific, yet evocative word choices – Grill, Falls, Empire – the reader is alerted to a once productive town that has fallen into mediocrity.

The examples from The Road and Falling Man respectively, are less specific yet equally strong indicators of place. “…in the woods” immediately directs the reader to conjure from their own experiences what a “woods” experience might be. An unknown “He” waking “…in the dark and cold of the night…” clues the reader to apply their own imagined impressions of how these cold, dark, woods would feel and how they affect the man and the child. As the storyteller introduces “He” and “Child”, the reader is inducted into an unspecified place that is partially of the reader’s improvisation.

The Road is set in a post apocalyptic future nine or ten years after “the bomb”. The author compels the reader to co-create this environment by utilizing natural aspects familiar to a modern reader such as tree, cold, asphalt, house, shopping cart and deconstruct them into foreign objects unsuitable for modern use. A contemporary reader’s familiarity with a shopping cart is as part of the shopping experience, to use and discard as one pleases. If a wheel sticks, one selects another from an abundant supply. In McCarthy’s eerily quiet but deadly world a shopping cart takes on the onus of a pack mule or a homeless person’s mobile home; one broken wheel is to forfeit all one’s stores, an extreme liability spelling doom.

On a microcosmic level, a good story opening reflects the entirety of a story’s scope. The tone that is established at the beginning must continue through to the end. Don DeLillo’s novel utilizes similar emotional tones with his opening lines that grow to a greater resonance through to the end of the book. In its deficit projection of what the street no longer is, the reader is swirled in a time / space / ash continuum where everybody is a “Falling Man.” Even if the reader does not have the luxury of the book’s mysterious cover art – twin towers disappearing into clouds – or the powerful live media representations that followed September 11, 2001, DeLillo prepares the reader for something equally catastrophic as McCarthy has at the beginning of The Road. Like an acorn that has the entire necessary DNA to become an Oak, the opening pages of a novel contain a similar DNA to carry the reader through to the fully developed ending of a story.

What gets a story going, I found, is the juxtaposition of character against setting. In the popular teen-vampire series, Twilight, the narrator, who is also the main character, Bella, is placed in an unfamiliar physical location from which plot emerges. Setting influencing character, creating tension. The outcome is plot. This is a classic set up to start a story. Bella in her familiar hometown of Phoenix, results in status quo, equals, no story. When placed her in an unfamiliar place, her new home of Forks, Washington, environmental tension (and vampires) occurs and plot ensues.

The first three paragraphs of Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon offer a simple illustration. The first paragraph describes a brilliant river-forest setting. The second paragraph describes a muscular, copper-headed man paddling up a river. The third paragraph unfolds as the canoeing man is drawn to shore by the sound of a wooden flute and into the, strong arms of Singing Heron. One. Two. Three. Setting is presented, character is produced, and the influence of setting upon character creates tension via choice. Woods + man in woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension and discovery, which unfold into plot.

A story’s beginning is a crucial indicator of how the reader will navigate through to the end. Consider the enduring success of Agatha Christie, Queen of the Murder Mystery, who said, “Only give out enough information to keep the reader involved. A story is a beginning, not the beginning.” It is important to offer the reader enough information to keep them interested, but not so much as to overwhelm or confuse them. Remaining intentionally narrow focuses the reader’s attention on the narrative track. It informs the reader, from the beginning, how the journey will progress for the next couple of hundred pages. As Ursela LeGuin indicates, the door one passes through to gain entry to this new world must follow through to satisfaction. The door presented to the reader must represent the story being presented. If a reader feels they’ve been baited and then switched, they’ll stop reading. If the reader figures out ‘who done it’ before the narrator does, there’s no more mystery in the murder. It is also true that in order to ensure a front-to-back reading, an author’s story should be full of surprises. If a reader knows what’s coming next, they’ll stop.

When considering which doorway to draw the reader through it is interesting to see how different authors use setting and character to produce tension and plot. In the case of The Road, it is a generic man in the woods with a sleeping child. The initial tension is revealed when the reader learns that the man is not in the woods by choice and is in great danger every moment. The opening situation mirrors the story’s ongoing conflict arising from the constant chaffing of character (father and son) against setting (ruined remains of former society) against circumstances (nothing to eat and everyone wants to eat them). The result? Tension and conflict are created as character and place become irreconcilable. The constant tension of McCarthy’s story is the square peg of need unable fit in the round hole of lack. What lends relevance to the seemingly simple situation of a father checking on his sleeping child on a cold, dark night is how the storyteller pushes natural act against unnatural setting.

Eighty-five percent of novels I read follow a classic model that establish setting at the onset. As in the Song of the Loon example, character follows setting which create tension and events. Setting is the imaginary portal that carries the reader, via narrative, from their world into the world of the story. Eighty-five percent of the novels I reviewed introduced a literal, particular or socio-economic setting early in the first paragraph and often in the first two sentences. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina it is the Oblonsky household. In Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die it is on a BOAC Stratocruiser. In One Hundred Years of Solitude it is “facing the firing squad.”

Of the remaining fifteen percent, ten of those imply a setting that is greatly affected by the narrator’s perception or conflicted mental state, as in the beginning of Falling Man or in Tod Goldberg’s Living Dead Girl. Goldberg’s narrator places the reader in the midst of a vague, haunting memory, which eventually leads the narrator to recall, “…the last time I was home.” As the narrator is emotionally homeless, the reader is cued to imagine an anti-home setting in a home-less anthropological construct. This lack-of-home, ungrounded state resonates throughout each of the characters of Goldberg’s story and is a theme in many of his works.

The popular children’s tale, Stuart Little by E.B. White, is in the fifteen percent that introduces character over place. The strange combination of characters in the Little family introduces tension by exploiting the reality of a mouse born into a human, urban family against the reader’s understanding of how urban humans typically react to mice. Usually with traps or poison. In the first paragraph, the storyteller takes hold of the reader’s attention by casually presenting Stuart Little’s birth into a human family:

When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.[5]

With a generous helping of suspension of disbelief and a childlike curiosity for how this infant will survive to maturity, the reader is less involved in discovering the setting of this incongruous family relationship and more with the nonchalance with which the family relationship occurs. Mice are ubiquitous to human activity. A mouse living with humans, as human, is very rare, indeed. And yet, there are several potential considerations playing on the reader’s mind that the author leaves to the reader’s imagination, such as, is this taking place in a regular house or in a mouse nest? Is the mouse/child in a crib or a matchbox? The narrator, in his earnest fashion, places the story in “America…where unusual happenings are rare.” He creates tension by holding the facts of Stuart Little’s coming into the world against the reader’s accustomed grasp of reality. Stuart is integrated into the family as if having a mouse for a son is not unusual.

The storyteller is staking a reader’s general bias toward mice to produce an initial conflict in a similar way that DeLillo, in the evocative opening narrative of Falling Man, relies upon a reader’s memory and understanding of the events of 9/11 to supply certain images that, as a media watching public, most readers can conjure from memory. In both examples the storyteller relies upon a reader’s experience of reality outside the story to accompany circumstances within the story.

A unique five percent of story beginnings, fall into a category best represented by Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, where the narrator is in no particular or stated physical location. The character is so absorbed in himself that setting is a non-existent feature. It is interesting to note how this ratio, 85-10-5, reflects similarly to Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s breakdown of social collectiveness in humans and animals. In the case of Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality and sexual preference, eighty-five percent of respondents followed a heterosexual norm, ten percent crossed over between hetero and homo-sexual preferences and the remaining five percent were strictly homo. This sociological 85-10-5 distribution also happens to mirror what happens at the racetrack or in the casino, where eighty-five percent of gamblers lose, ten percent break-even, and five percent win, which has a great deal to say about how individual habits mirror human nature and explains all those big buildings in Las Vegas.

As human beings, we come from a long tribal history of living close to the earth, close to the crops we cultivated and the animals we raised or hunted. Socio-integration was vital to the safety and continuation of the clan. If one was not part of the tribe he was part of the outside. Aligning oneself to a tribal place was a specific way to gain audience allegiance to a storyteller’s character and narration. Commonly known settings made a story accessible. In the most recent couple of hundred years man has migrated to densely populated areas and created communal identities on a very large scale. Instead of being a member of “the green clan,” we have assumed the identity of Cleveland, London or Beijing, which has grown to represent large masses of individuals. In order to introduce narrative specificity and individual character as defining features, storytellers initiated the stratified fifteen percent that focus first on a character’s lack of recognizable place in order to focus on the individual’s interior complexity.

In the case of A Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami’s placeless, narrative conversation occurs in the relative non-setting of “it.” As a style, this five percent is more challenging to enter, as if the narrated character has not acknowledged the presence of a listener, or reader in this case:

It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.
The date, a street corner, a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty, an investigation of possible negligence.
Sounded like one of those poems on the inner flap of a magazine.
“Where’s the funeral?” I asked.
“You got me,” he said. “Did she even have a family?”[6]

What is unusual about Murakami’s first, eight-page chapter is that the unnamed character who narrates the story of a dead girl, doesn’t seem to be actually involved with his own life story. He is literally narrating from his past without making reference to himself. Neither does he illuminate the reader to other helpful monuments within his narrative; such as where he is, to whom he is speaking, or what he is doing while he narrates the story of this unnamed, dead, former girlfriend. In doing so, the characters exist as random mental notations and emotional reminiscences,

Of course, strictly speaking, she didn’t sleep with just anyone. She had standards. Still, the fact of the matter is, as any cursory examination of the evidence would suffice to show, that she was quite willing to sleep with almost any guy.

The reader is given a date stamp of October 25, 1970. Tokyo is referred to, soon after. The remaining where or what, time or place, are generic as if to suggest a sense of uniformity and interchangeability about the characters and their situations. Soon after and from out of the blue, we learn that the girl anticipates she,

“…is going to live to be twenty-five,” she said, “then die.”
July, eight years later, she was dead at twenty-six.”

 

With this, the story circles back to the obituary and the strange, foreign-feeling beginning.

All characters relate to the place they inhabit, whether they enjoy the place or not. Even if that place is completely foreign to the reader, it tells the reader how to relate to the character within the imaginative world of the story. As readers of fictional literature, we are predominantly human beings with critical responses to particular places and events that occur in familiar locations. Most fictional characters exist with human characteristics. Even in fantastical scenarios, robots, trees or barnyard animals exhibit human traits and emotions. As humans, we view the world and our place in it, not visa versa. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities, who view themselves as the center of the universe, require a universe in which to be the center of. People relate differently depending on where they encounter each other. A reader relates to a character as defined by the world it inhabits. Character development within the author’s chosen world lends credence and a more detailed picture of that character’s social, economic and worldviews; Captain Ahab exists on a ship, not in a stagecoach; Scarlett O’Hara in colonial rural Georgia; Dorothy Gale lands in OZ, not the Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs.

In addition to setting, character and plot told via an authorial voice with narrative intention, there exists a circular story action common to the opening pages of many full-length fictional works. For lack of a better name, I call it Thematic Preamble to which the author makes callbacks throughout the story, in much the same way a composer uses leitmotif or standup comics call back reminders of successful jokes. A Thematic Preamble is usually two to four pages, although it can be much shorter, and focuses on a main character, a parallel story or a topic. In John Irving’s The Cider House Rules where, like a fable handed down from generation to generation, the preamble illuminates the naming process at St. Cloud’s orphanage where Homer Wells will be born in the next few pages. A Thematic Preamble is different from a prologue in that the preamble contains action and plot that contributes to the story’s narrative throughline. Most prologues introduce relative or parallel information that stands alone from the “real” story. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight there is an exciting one page prologue of the narrator being stalked by her would-be murderer. This precedes about one hundred and fifty pages of “Good God, will something please happen!” Carson McCullers, in the thematic preamble of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, gives the reader a three-page overview of a typical day between two deaf and mute men before the story settles down to a slower pace with more specific personal information. One could compare a Thematic Preamble to the overture of a musical or operetta in that it prepares the reader with the sound and style of an author’s tone, without tasking the reader to remember specific details crucial to character or plot development. If one re-read the opening after enjoying the entire book, it would seem obvious that the author is providing more than just a moment to unwrap ones candy or bring one’s mind into reading mode. The Thematic Preamble is a platform from which major thematic elements are planted. In the case of Homer Wells and the orphanage in St. Cloud’s, the question of name, social position and the relation of father to son are constant, recurring questions of Irving’s work. Irving also establishes a subtle paradox in the setting, the town of “St. Cloud’s.” St. Cloud’s is a proper noun and possessive. It is as if the town has ownership over Homer and all the boys born there. Homer is the inferred possession of the orphanage itself; a St. Cloud’s boy.

Popular theory states there are only three story types: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. Man appears in each case,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”[7]

Consider Dickens classically balanced opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. With its rhythmic swing, the reader is drawn into the novel’s large thematic questions as well as acquainted what will drive the action: England versus France; Love versus Oppression; Family versus Hatred and more specifically Mr. Darney versus Madame Defarge. While Dickens doesn’t specify setting in his stylized opening paragraph, there was great public awareness around the larger events of the day. As in 9/11 and Falling Man, Dicken’s subtle indications became metaphor for the individual dramas and how they took place before a large public and historical backdrop.

In her chapter, “On Thinking Small” in The Making of a Story, author Alice LaPlante stresses how concrete details are the lifeblood of good writing, “…you won’t see the forest unless you see this tree and that tree and that tree.” (107) Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, also stresses the need to “think small”: “Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later, we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy or social criticism.” (7)

In the notes of his unfinished manuscript for The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in capital letters, “ACTION IS CHARACTER.” Stahr, the character around whom the action evolves, is the head of a Hollywood film studio and a major player in the early movie business. Each of Stahr’s movements and decisions cause a chain of events that resonate throughout the Hollywood circle of influence affecting, not only Stahr, but each of the story’s other characters.

Even when a character is not a main character, they still drive the action of their own story and the story as a whole. Neither Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, nor Rosemary Hoyt, the young actress and object of desire in Tender is the Night, are central characters of their respective stories. Yet, when they have the opportunity to influence the main character against his destruction, they choose inaction, taking the road of least confrontation. Their inaction, a reflection of character deficit and Fitzgerald’s commentary of the American mindset of the time, contributes to each protagonist’s downfall. In each of their cases these characters act to avoid action, defining them by what they do, versus who they are.

The Catcher in the Rye is a character first story, similar to Stuart Little or The Great Gatsby, in that Holden Caulfield, as both narrator and main character, he is so overwhelmed by his situation that even after a lengthy preamble, excusing himself from disclosing anything of worth or value about himself, proceeds to narrate his story, as if speaking to an unseen interviewer. Like the narrator in Mirakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, J.D. Salinger’s narrator begins with the assumption that we already know the gist of his story and that we are comfortable entering his narrative in progress. The opening paragraph serves as a thematic preamble, a warm up of sorts, allowing Caulfield to settle in before getting down to the facts of his tale. The ensuing paragraph puts the reader onto more solid ground by introducing a verifiable setting to offset the potential unreliability of Caulfield as narrator on the facts of his life,

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”[8]

 

Caulfield’s introduction runs parallel to his need for constant movement and entertainment. He is lost, but he is guided by his need for experiences, even juvenile ones. Caulfield is always narrating his story, even if he is incapable of representing himself accurately.

An author does not have to be gifted to write a good story. An author must be consistent and true to the world they create. Regardless of what the story is about, everything must relate back to the larger themes set up at the beginning. A reader should be able to finish a book, turn back to the beginning and see how the ending was set up in the first few pages. It is the author’s job to be as narrow and specific as possible, while providing as full and descriptive a world as necessary. It is imperative for the author to constantly refine his work for consistency. Promise an entire world, provide only what is essential to the story being narrated. Good stories move toward a good ending. Good stories don’t reveal the ending. Good storytelling keeps within a narrow bandwidth, otherwise it falls apart searching for new material. Surprise and discovery are excellent devices, but without consistent threads that support the narrative a story spins out beyond the scope of the story’s reality. Consider the relatively narrow motivating force that affects all the characters, tensions and their resulting actions in Gone With the Wind, “I want what I want because I deserve it… because I want it.”

I am acutely aware of how my blood pressure changes as a story’s authorial voice settles into my consciousness. As I feel the story wash over me, as the narrator and I become increasingly acquainted, my body gives over to the authority the narrator has over events and an intimate triangle is created between reader, narrator and story being created. First person narrators, such as the narrators in Twilight, Lolita and Mrs. Dalloway are particularly good at creating this intimate bond, whether they are reliable or not. They create an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story.

So, what did I learn by reading all these different first ten pages? Most obviously, novels are about character, even if that character is a kitchen sink, but they are about place first. Place is the springboard from which the reader understands the character’s relationship to the world and how the reader creates their relationship to the characters in the story.

Make inconsistencies facts. It will create future tension. Start narrow and stay narrow in order to maximize credibility within the bandwidth of believability created by the narrator, for instance Holden Caulfield keeps his narration within the narrow bandwidth of “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to…” or in One Hundred Years of Solitude the main character opens the story “facing the firing squad” in the same way that the entire country is facing destruction and yet miraculously continues living on and on.

Implicate! With how few words can a writer create a place and characters using as much implication as possible? Budding writers tend to explain far more than necessary. Don’t.

Be specific over being descriptive. It will broaden the reader’s ability to co-create the story with the narrator, as the media images and the events of 9/11 co-created a reader’s experience of Falling Man.

Ignore what I think the reader needs to know. Instead, enmesh and entangle place and character, force the character to choose. Forcing change, by putting the characters in a position to choose, raises tension. Ignore the desire to describe until description supports conflict within the narrative.

Break down each sentence to see how it supports the whole. If the acorn of the opening pages grows into a Maple, something is terribly wrong.

Without characters who do something, there is no forward movement; without movement, no action; no action, no plot. “A bad beginning makes for a bad ending,” wrote Euripides, and indeed it is critical to know how to raise the curtain on a story. Mama Rose in the Broadway musical Gypsy, says, “If you have a great ending they’ll forgive you for anything,” and while it may be true of production numbers and fireworks pageants, it is unlikely that a reader will hang-out with dull material for a couple hundred pages on the off-chance of a spectacular finish.

“Begin every story in the middle,” says Louis L’Amour, King of the Great American Western. Chekhov told young writers to tear up the first three pages of what they had written in order to begin with a sense of momentum. In medias res, said Horace. L’Amour says it plainer. “The reader doesn’t care how it begins; he just wants to get on with it.” So what happens next? Get on with it!

Notes
1. Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. 1936. 1,035 pages. First 10 pages = .97% of total story.
2. The Road. Cormic McCarthy. 2006. 285 pages. First 10 pages = 3.51% of total story.
3. Empire Falls. Richard Russo. 2001. 483 pages. First 10 pages = 2.07% of total story.
4. Falling Man. Don DiLillo. 2007. 244 pages. First 10 pages = 4.1% of total story.
5. Stuart Little. E.B. White. 1945. 138 pages. First 10 pages = 7.25% of total story.
6. Wild Sheep Chase. Haruki Murakami. 1989. 353 pages. First 10 pages = 2.83% of total story.
7. A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens. 1859. 412 pages. First 10 pages = 2.43% of total story.
8. The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger. 1951. 277 pages. First 10 pages = 3.64% of total story.

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Bryan Burch is a recent MFA graduate of University California Riverside – Palm Desert low residency Creative Writing program. He is co-editor of THE WHISTLING FIRE online journal and continues to contribute to his website www.first10pages.com.