Alice Munro

Old rejection letters from publishers addressed to author Alice Munro were recently found in the Harry Ransom Center. Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month, making her the thirteenth woman and first Canadian to win the award.

 
Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

An archive of rejection letters revealed 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Alice Munro’s initial difficulties publishing her work in an American market.

Munro’s work, which won her the Nobel Prize on Oct. 10, is known for themes of self-discovery and gender roles. She is the first Canadian to receive the award and the 13th woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Ransom Center holds a large number of rejection sheets as part of the Alfred A. Knopf archive, a New York publishing company, including one for Munro’s first book of short stories and one for her first novel.

“I think [the collection] speaks to what difficulties she had in the genre in which she was working,” said Jean Cannon, literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center. “It’s remarkable to me that she would stick with it and not give in to the pressure to write a novel.” 

One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, “Lives of Girls and Women,” in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. 

“There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,” Jones wrote.

Senior lecturer Brian Doherty taught a entire course on Munro and said that the letters from Knopf made it obvious that the company enjoyed her writing but just didn’t think there was a market.

“[It’s] depressing when you consider so many writers change their approach to writing and their approach to literature in order to increase salability,” Doherty said. “You have to really respect the writers who labor in obscurity because they believe in what they’re doing even though they might not get notoriety or Nobel Prizes.”

McGraw-Hill published Munro’s novel in 1972 and with its success, published her book of short stories two years later, which was nearly five years after its release in Canada.

“Alice Munro is a good example of someone who stayed true to her vision of being a writer and ended up producing some material that is so widely respected,” Doherty said.

Ann Cvetkovich, English and women’s and gender studies professor, said the rejection letters prove the difficulties of being a female short story writer and especially the challenges she faced being a Canadian. Cvetkovich said she was interested in becoming a writer when she was 11 and bought Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades.” 

“It really demystifies the process of writing and shows you that, so often, good writers are not always recognized because they fall off the radar due to their gender, sexuality, race or in this case, their national background,” Cvetkovich said.

Old rejection letters from publishers addressed to author Alice Munro were recently found in the Harry Ransom Center. Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month, making her the thirteenth woman and first Canadian to win the award.

 
Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

An archive of rejection letters revealed 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Alice Munro’s initial difficulties publishing her work in an American market.

Munro’s work, which won her the Nobel Prize on Oct. 10, is known for themes of self-discovery and gender roles. She is the first Canadian to receive the award and the 13th woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Ransom Center holds a large number of rejection sheets as part of the Alfred A. Knopf archive, a New York publishing company, including one for Munro’s first book of short stories and one for her first novel.

“I think [the collection] speaks to what difficulties she had in the genre in which she was working,” said Jean Cannon, literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center. “It’s remarkable to me that she would stick with it and not give in to the pressure to write a novel.” 

One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, “Lives of Girls and Women,” in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. 

“There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,” Jones wrote.

Senior lecturer Brian Doherty taught a entire course on Munro and said that the letters from Knopf made it obvious that the company enjoyed her writing but just didn’t think there was a market.

“[It’s] depressing when you consider so many writers change their approach to writing and their approach to literature in order to increase salability,” Doherty said. “You have to really respect the writers who labor in obscurity because they believe in what they’re doing even though they might not get notoriety or Nobel Prizes.”

McGraw-Hill published Munro’s novel in 1972 and with its success, published her book of short stories two years later, which was nearly five years after its release in Canada.

“Alice Munro is a good example of someone who stayed true to her vision of being a writer and ended up producing some material that is so widely respected,” Doherty said.

Ann Cvetkovich, English and women’s and gender studies professor, said the rejection letters prove the difficulties of being a female short story writer and especially the challenges she faced being a Canadian. Cvetkovich said she was interested in becoming a writer when she was 11 and bought Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades.” 

“It really demystifies the process of writing and shows you that, so often, good writers are not always recognized because they fall off the radar due to their gender, sexuality, race or in this case, their national background,” Cvetkovich said.

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Dear Life
Author: Alice Munro
Genre: Short stories
Publisher: Random House

At age 81, Alice Munro’s preoccupations as a writer have scarcely changed from what they were in the bold, raw work of her early career. 

In her collection of short stories, “Dear Life,” isolated, ambitious, unusual and almost exclusively female protagonists grapple with love, parenting and marriage in the grand desolation of rural Canada. Munro does not write about these capital-letter topics as they are commonly served, steeped in cultural distortions, but as they are experienced: love as it is felt, gripping and improbable; motherhood, so far as it is managed; and marriage as it is, more often than not, endured. As a writer, Munro is understated, controlled and wary of metaphor. Her legacy is one of depth, precision and, perhaps, even perfection.

She has a knack of rendering “ordinary” lives so artfully that they become singular, thick with their own meanings. In “To Reach Japan,” for example, one understands instinctively how a mother’s mind would reel with what-ifs after losing track of her child, how a particular sort of young man befriends children “to test [his] own charms,” and how an anonymous poet might feel more comfortable at a party full of boring engineers than at a gathering of her fellow writers.

Though the geographic scope of Munro’s work has not altered as she has aged, the chronologies of her stories have lengthened to span lifetimes. Stories in “Dear Life” often begin in a time when “having any serious idea,” as a woman, “let alone ambition, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child getting pneumonia,” and extend into a near-present landscape of retirement homes and high-rise apartments.

One of the pleasures of reading Munro’s short stories is experiencing their unpredictability. In long-reaching narratives like “Amundsen” and “Train,” Munro moves unhurriedly, and often non-sequentially, through the twists and unexpected turns of real lives. In “Train,” the reticent protagonist, now middle-aged, sees a beautiful grey-haired woman at the hotel where he works. Readers learn, after 20-odd pages of unrelated story, that this lady is an old sweetheart who he abandoned in the pivotal decision of his life.

Unlike the first few stories of the collection, which are vivid in their precision, Munro’s vision in some of the later stories feels zoomed out, though still in-focus. In “Gravel” and “Haven,” first-person narrators grope back through vast swathes of time to ruminate on events from their childhood. This narrative style presents, at times, more of an impediment than an entry point to Munro’s glimmering, snow-shagged world.

The last four works of the collection make up a separate section that is, according to Munro, “autobiographical in feeling.” Munro writes that these “not quite stories” are, “the first and last — and the closest things I have to say about my own life.” Though written from the same distant vantage point as “Gravel” and “Haven,” these stories hum with a richness that those fictional stories lack.

Munro rejects the sometimes too-tidy purposefulness of the short story in these nearly autobiographical works, weaving together loosely related anecdotes about her vexatious mother, blue-collar father, her gutsy maid, Sadie, and a prostitute whose vivacity thrills Munro’s young female narrator. When a neighbor enters briefly into one such anecdote, Munro comments on the divergence of fiction and biography: “Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.”

Dear Life

Printed on Monday, November 19, 2012 as: Short stories span across lifetimes