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On Boringness

by Sally Cobau

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When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, my husband texted me on the way to my early morning class.  I was ecstatic and let out a yelp as I made my way across campus.

Munro is my “favorite author,” and I felt personally vindicated—she’d done it!!!  Just this past summer, when my English-teacher father asked what book I would take to a deserted island (a delightful question for a passionate reader to consider to be sure), I answered Alice Munro—Runaway.  Not the Bible.  Not Shakespeare.

Yes, I chose “specific,” rather than grand, but I also chose (obviously, I guess) a book I could read again and again and again.  I read Alice Munro a couple of times a week, usually in the bathtub, letting the dexterity of her language, the subtlety of her thoughts soothe and startle me, Like all good writing, I feel more alive when I read Munro. 

But the closer I got to my class, the slower I walked.  I wanted to share this fantastic news, but exactly what would this mean to a group of freshman who were assigned English 950, a step even below the dreaded comp 101?  And on a larger scale what would her stories mean to this group? 

This was a fabulous class, full of characters and individuals passionately involved in doing their thing—elk hunters and swing dancers and women who brought their horses from far away to attend a university known for equestrian studies.

I had a sinking fear of what they would say about Munro: BORING.  My husband has suggested that you never share your favorite writers with your students because their reactions will only disappoint.  He no longer shares Ray Carver with his students because they do not seem to “get” the enigmatic writer. 

So far I haven’t listened to this advice and I have my students read Junot Diaz, Russell Banks, and Joyce Carol Oates.  I also hand out selections from my favorite literary journal, The Sun, to read.  I think of The Sun as pretty juicy, bold, and vibrant.

I read the magazine from cover to cover when it comes in the mail, but when I pulled out a story for my students to read (something I thought they could relate to because it had a big section about football after all), they said it was the most boring thing they’d ever read.

To be honest, I was flabbergasted.  I wanted my reading selections to be anything—difficult, edgy, tear-jerking, dark, longing—anything but boring.  One guy in the class (who was actually a great story-teller with little mechanical writing skills to back him up) said, “Why do we have to write it all down anyway?  Isn’t it better just to live these stories?”

It’s hard to respond to that.

So this brings me back to Munro.  I remember when the boy I was dating at the time introduced me to Munro.  This was way back in the 1990s, a lifetime ago.  I noticed (as my students would now) that the story he was urging me to read was very long

When I started to read it I was thrown off by detailed passages describing things I had no interest in—wall-papering, the way a room looked, the landscape.  I couldn’t believe that he thought this was good.  Besides that, I had no idea what was going on.  There was a person who was remembering another person who was reading the letters of another person—some such thing I had no time for.

I tossed the book aside and went back to the more immediately satisfying Bright Lights, Big City, which was extremely popular at the time (and edgy and written in the second person—what more could one want?)

But as time went on I returned to Munro.  I started to like reading between the lines in her stories; I liked the fact that you couldn’t get everything at once and she left a lot unsaid and oblique.  Many times the ending came as a surprise so you had to go back and read the beginning to search for clues, foreshadowing.  And I wasn’t the only one who loved Munro.  Maybe she was a “writer’s writer,” but I didn’t mind being in the company of Jonathan Franzen who also saw her as the best of the best.

This summer after watching a movie based on Munro’s story “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” (again an enigma—if you read the story and understand where the title comes from please e-mail me!) and feeling unmoored, wonderfully displaced by the story, I looked on-line to see what other reviewers thought of Munro.  Most reviews were glowing, but I did come across one which stated that Munro was overrated, that she wrote the same thing again and again, that her characters were weak, that, in essence, she was boring.  I think the reviewer meant boring because yes, her stories are usually set in rural places in Canada, and yes, they are usually confined by some circumstance such as a parent’s illness or lack of financial opportunity, but couldn’t that reviewer see that this was life

You will not find texts or even cellphones in Munro and indeed sometimes it feels as if you are stepping back in time, but to me the calibrated feelings she creates in her characters are dead on; so real, that I can almost feel what the characters are feeling.

Munro claims that she’s retired.  She says it’s harder to remember the names of her characters now, and she deserves a break (though I wish desperately I would get a New Yorker with a new story in it).  I also heard that she had to be tracked down at her daughter’s house, and woken in the early morning to learn that she had won the Nobel.  For years Munro worked on a little desk in the “center of things,” leaving her writing to answer the phone and attend to her kids.  Yet the imaginative world created there… 

It’s hard to relay to non-readers why reading something difficult (and Munro is not a Thomas Pynchon by any means), can be satisfying.  Often my students will open our discussion with, “I just wasn’t a fan of this…”  While this makes me laugh, it also makes me wonder.  Why is exploring life with a blade and knife boring?  In the words of the poet John Berryman, “Life, friends, is boring.”  Alice Munro is not. 

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