Monday, July 15, 2024

Must We Burn Alice Munro?

Simone de Beauvoir: Faut-il brûler Sade ? (1951)

I wrote a post about the Chinoiserie-inflected "Kai Lung" stories of English writer Ernest Bramah a year or so ago. In it, I mentioned Simone de Beauvoir's classic essay Must We Burn de Sade?, first published in the early 1950s. Certainly the ethnic stereotyping and yellow-face clichés with which Bramah's work is saturated are extremely reprehensible by modern standards.

Ernest Bramah: Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940)

And yet ... given that it's the very absurdity and exaggeration of such traits which constitutes the point of these hundred-year-old stories - as well as any humorous content they may contain - it does seem a little like breaking a butterfly on a wheel to insist on explicit public condemnation of his work.

After all, in a world where Robert van Gulik's not dissimilarly flavoured "Judge Dee" detective stories can be filmed by a Chinese production company, for mainland Chinese audiences, conventional ideas of cultural appropriation don't appear to apply so straightforwardly anymore.

But now a far more serious test-case has arisen. Hot on the heels of the accusations of sexual assault against Sandman-creator Neil Gaiman, some truly awful revelations about Nobel-prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro have come out in an op-ed article written by her estranged daughter, Andrea Skinner.

Nor is this one of those "he said / she said", Mommy Dearest scandals where true believers can continue to insist on the innocence of their hero. Alice Munro's second husband, Gerald Fremlin, sexually assaulted his stepdaughter Andrea in 1976, when she was nine years old. He was convicted of this offence - for which he received a suspended sentence and two years probation - in 2005.

In 1992, at the age of 25, Andrea Skinner
wrote a letter to Munro, finally coming forward about the abuse.

Munro told her she felt betrayed and likened the abuse to an affair, a response that devastated Skinner, she wrote.

In response, Fremlin wrote letters to Munro and the family, threatening to kill Skinner if she ever went to the police. He blamed Skinner for the abuse and described her as a child as a "home wrecker." He also threatened to expose photos he took of Skinner when she was a girl.
What a prince! It was on the evidence of these letters that he was convicted, however, so he may have overreached a bit there.
Munro went back to Fremlin and stayed with him until he died in 2013 ... Munro allegedly said “that she had been ‘told too late,’ she loved him too much, and that our misogynistic culture was to blame if I expected her to deny her own needs, sacrifice for her children, and make up for the failings of men. She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather. It had nothing to do with her," Skinner wrote in her essay.

Alice Munro (1931-2024)

In any way you've got to hand it to Munro. She certainly came out swinging! And yet the courage and restraint that Andrea Skinner has shown in not airing her own story till her mother was dead seems to me far more admirable.

Nor can I quite follow the reasoning which equates any critique of Tammy Wynette-style standing by your man with "misogyny", but clearly Munro thought it was unreasonable for anyone to expect her to leave her husband for good just because he was a murderous paedophile. Perhaps it is. I can't help feeling that it might slightly inhibit the banter over the conrnflakes each morning, but that's just me.

In his 1944 essay "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali", Orwell grapples with the question of whether or not one can admire the work of someone who is undoubtedly a reprehensible human being. He says of the then recently published Secret Life of Salvador Dali:
If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would — a thought that might please Dali, who before wooing his future wife for the first time rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of goat's dung boiled up in fish glue. But against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker. He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings. And these two sets of facts, taken together, raise a question which for lack of any basis of agreement seldom gets a real discussion.

That question is, I presume, whether or not art can co-exist with depravity. Coming back to Simone de Beauvoir's essay, mentioned above, should the Marquis de Sade be seen as an important writer and thinker, or simply as a revolting cockroach who ought to have been crushed on sight? Orwell continues:
The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali's pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.
The people who simply see him as an undesirable, and refuse even to acknowledge the possibility of any talent in such a deviant, he continues, at any rate have the virtue of consistency:
But if you talk to the kind of person who can see Dali's merits, the response that you get is not as a rule very much better. If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don't like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the aesthetic sense ... On the one side Kulturbolschevismus: on the other (though the phrase itself is out of fashion) ‘Art for Art's sake.’ Obscenity is a very difficult question to discuss honestly. People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.

Salvador Dalí: The Great Masturbator (1929)

In the age of "cancel culture" (so-called), these questions have become even harder to debate. However, as Beauvoir reminds us, burning Sade - or banning his works and pillorying anyone who dares to read them - is unlikely to advance us in our attempts to understand the stranger recesses of human psychology.

In my younger days, I felt very strongly that (in Thomas Hardy's words):
if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.
In fact I wrote a whole novel in this spirit, Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000). It was characterised as follows by a local reviewer:
The untitled cover of this book opens to horrors akin to those of Pandora. Not all the contents are evil but the spirit of darkness certainly prevails.

Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Time (1986)

"Not all the contents are evil." Fortunately this was not the view which prevailed among other reviewers and readers, most of whom seemed to have a pretty good idea what I was driving at.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is in the words of the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, who said in his book of essays on cinema, Sculpting in Time:
To tell of what is living, the artist uses something dead; to speak of the infinite, he describes the finite.
Unable to speak of heaven without descending into banality, instead you might choose to describe one of the many hells - a much easier assignment! By portraying that one thing, however, the lines of its antithesis are also being made out at the same time, by implication.

It sounds paradoxical, but it's really not. It's much harder to draw a saint than a villain, but to make your saint believable is virtually impossible. That's not to say that saintliness is an undesirable attribute, however. We could do with far, far more of them. And I'm convinced that they do exist. I'm just not one of them.

Sarah Polley, dir.: Away from Her (2006)

Nor, it appears, was Alice Munro. Before all this erupted, I had two main associations with her work.

The first was the Sarah Polley film above, based on Munro's 1999 story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". The grim paradox in the plot is that a man who is forced to institutionalise his wife, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, then has to watch her shift her affections to another man, Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound mute at the same nursing home. She becomes convinced that it is Aubrey with whom she has had a long-term relationship, whereas her actual husband is now a stranger to her.

The film (and the story) are poignant and powerful, but there's a certain coldness and cruelty behind the idea which explains at least part of its success, it seems to me.

The second thing was a short story conference in Shanghai which Bronwyn and I attended in 2016. After a while it became apparent that virtually all of the earnest young graduate students there were working on Alice Munro, and (accordingly) giving papers on her stories. She was definitely the author du jour for them.

This came as a bit of a surprise to those of us still enmeshed in the web of Raymond Carver and the dirty realists. Alice Munro? Who she? We determined to find out, so one of the first things we did when we got home was to buy a copy of the Everyman edition of her selected stories, pictured near the top of this post.

I can't say I was particularly turned on by her work. I could see how it accomplished it was, but it didn't seem quite my sort of thing.

Now, in retrospect, the plot of Away from Her seems more meaningful than ever. For a start, Munro herself suffered from dementia "for at least 12 years". The idea that the wife needs her new relationship, with the wheelchair-bound mute Aubrey, more than the former one with her actual husband is also a suggestive one. It may seem illogical to outsiders, but it's truer to her own emotional temperature.

The horrible, almost unpalatable truth about this scandal based on a mother's failure to support or even empathise with her own daughter, is that it's likely to do nothing but good to Munro's career. There may be a few temporary blips in sales, but more readers are drawn to turbulent, demon-ridden souls such as Dostoyevsky and Dickens than they are to the sanity and order of better-balanced authors.

Did Dickens lose any readers over the late revelation of his cruel rejection of his wife in order to pursue an affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan? Nelly, it seems, had little choice in the matter - neither did Mrs. Dickens. His saccharine morality showed its pinchbeck quality once and for all in his later life. And yet we continue to pore over the complexities of his last fictions, full of young heroines sacrificing themselves for self-pitying older men.

Mikhail Petrashevsky: Dostoyevsky's mock execution (1849)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a gambler, a drunkard, a rabid anti-semite. He appears to have suffered from lifelong PTSD after experiencing a mock execution in front of one of the Tsar's firing squads, followed by exile to Siberia. As a result, it's not hard for us to believe in the appallingly damaged characters who inhabit such novels as Crime and Punishment or The Devils.

I must confess to having yawned once or twice when I first started reading Munro's stories. They didn't engage me as much as the works of (say) her near contemporaries Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin. Now, however, there's more of a demonic edge to them. It's perfectly possible - even likely - that she could feel her own mind going as she watched the horrid ironies of her own short story reenacted by the actors in Close to Her.

Nor can she have been blind to the fact that her dirty little secret was bound to come out in the end. Just as the illegitimate daughter whose very existence Wordsworth hid from the world was eventually discovered, giving the lie to so many of his more pompous moral pronouncements - but also explaining so much about him and his transformation from youthful rebel to faithful servant of the establishment - so Munro's hateful attitude towards her own daughter must have continued to nag at her as she conducted her minute analyses of the mindsets and actions of provincial Canadians.

We haven't stopped reading him yet, and no doubt the same will apply to Alice Munro. However much we might deplore their actions, this tends to have the paradoxical effect of deepening our interest in their writings, rather than erasing it.

Alison Bechdel: The Secret To Superhuman Strength (2021)

Alice Munro (2006)

Alice Ann Munro (née Laidlaw)

Books I own are marked in bold:

  1. Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
  2. Lives of Girls and Women (1971)
  3. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974)
  4. Who Do You Think You Are? [aka "The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose"] (1978)
  5. The Moons of Jupiter (1982)
  6. The Progress of Love (1986)
  7. Friend of My Youth (1990)
  8. Open Secrets (1994)
  9. The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
  10. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage [aka "Away from Her"] (2001)
    • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.
  11. Runaway (2004)
    • Runaway: Stories. Introduction by Jonathan Franzen. 2004. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2005.
  12. The View from Castle Rock (2006)
  13. Too Much Happiness (2009)
  14. Dear Life (2012)

  15. Compilations:

  16. Selected Stories 1968-1994 [aka "A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968–1994"] (1996)
  17. No Love Lost (2003)
  18. Vintage Munro (2004)
  19. Carried Away: A Selection of Stories [aka "Alice Munro's Best: A Selection of Stories"]. Introduction by Margaret Atwood (2006)
    • Carried Away: A Selection of Stories. Introduction by Margaret Atwood. 2006. Everyman’s Library, 302. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
  20. My Best Stories (2009)
  21. New Selected Stories (2011)
  22. Lying Under the Apple Tree. New Selected Stories (2014)
  23. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995–2014 (2014)

Alice Munro & her family:
l-to-r: Jenny, Sheila, Alice & Andrea

Monday, July 01, 2024

My new book Haunts is available today!

Unpacking Copies of Haunts (27/6/24)
[photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

The official publication date for my new collection of short stories, Haunts, is today, Monday 1st July, 2024.

Cover image: Graham Fletcher (by courtesy of the artist) /
Cover design: Daniela Gast (2024)

As you can see, it does bear a certain resemblance to my previous collection, Ghost Stories, also published by Lasavia Publishing five years ago.

Cover image: Graham Fletcher (by courtesy of the artist) /
Cover design: Daniela Gast (2019)

Once again, it's been a great pleasure to work on the book with the Lasavia team: editor Mike Johnson, and designers Daniela Gast & Rowan Johnson. Again, just like last time, I owe a big thank you to Graham Fletcher for the use of his cover image, and (as ever) to my brilliant wife Bronwyn Lloyd for invaluable advice at every stage. Thanks, too, to Tracey Slaughter for her comments on the typescript at a crucial point of the process.

So what is the book about? The easiest thing might just be to quote from the blurb:
'As Jack Ross stated in his latest collection Ghost Stories, ‘We’re most haunted by that which we’ve worked hardest to deny and eradicate from our lives.'
- Brooke Georgia, Aubade (2022)
What do we actually mean by the word haunt? In this new set of stories inspired by the term, Jack Ross invokes a series of his favourite haunts via voices from the past, beginning with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and concluding with Emanuel Swedenborg.
In between he visits with Irish ghost-story maestro Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, along with others ranging from James Joyce to H. P. Lovecraft – not to mention Scheherazade herself, creator / narrator of The 1001 Nights.
Most importantly of all, perhaps, he tries to settle accounts with his own father, the architect of a vast entangled empire of native bush and weeds at the back of their suburban quarter-acre section in Mairangi Bay.
The book ends with the novella Cartographies of the Afterlife, an exploration of the penumbra between life and death, based on accounts from recent visitors.
In the immortal words of Bette Davis: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.’

Jack Ross is the author of six poetry collections, four novels, and four books of short fiction. His previous collection, Ghost Stories (Lasavia, 2019), has been prescribed for writing courses at three local universities. He’s also edited numerous books, anthologies, and literary journals, including (most recently) Mike Johnson’s Selected Poems (2023).
He blogs at

Brooke Georgia: Aubade (26/3-17/4/2022)

The quote featured above comes from the catalogue for Brooke Georgia's solo exhibition Aubade, at Public Record in Ponsonby.

Another vital question is how you can obtain a copy of the book? We're planning a booklaunch a bit later in the year, but in the meantime, if you'd like to order one online, it's available from the following websites:

Should you buy a copy? Well, obviously, that's between you and your conscience, but I'll conclude by quoting a few extracts from the Lasavia manifesto, written by Waiheke poet and novelist Mike Johnson:
‘When Leila Lees and I first considered establishing Lasavia Publishing, less than one in a hundred manuscripts submitted to publishers reached publication. ... Manuscripts submitted to publishers were, and still are, routinely returned unopened. ‘Mechanisms of exclusion’ as Foucault called them, are rife in the present publishing climate, particularly in New Zealand.

... Publishers distrust the wild card, that which might put readers too far out of their comfort zones, as if comfort was somehow the purpose of literature. Both writers and readers lose out. Real grass roots work is lost or supplanted by celebrity culture. Only indy publishers, who don’t have to carry the overheads of big publishers, will be light enough on their feet to thrive in the new publishing environment."
Recent books issued by Lasavia include Max Gunn's Paybook, a novel by Graham Lindsay; Aucklanders, a collection of stories by Murray Edmond; and Mike Johnson's own Selected Poems, fruit of five decades' work in the medium.

Isabel Michell: Luigi checks it out (1/7/24)