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Hors-thème - Relire Dance of the Happy Shades d'Alice Munro / Reading Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

"Now back to your stories": Framing the First Canadian Edition of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades

Karis Shearer
p. 195-200

Abstract

Cet essai se réfère à la première édition de la première œuvre d’Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades, pour proposer une lecture critique fondée sur l’examen des tensions entre le péritexte et le texte. L’argument consiste à démontrer que le péritexte fonctionne sur le même principe de contrôle patriarcal que celui qui est dénoncé dans le texte, en particulier dans la nouvelle intitulée "The Office."

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1In his 1987 book Seuils, Gérard Genette offered us the now familiar term "paratext" to designate the threshold or liminal space made up of the material peripheral to the main text. The paratext, Genette suggests, serves as a strategic zone for guiding readers’ reception, encouraging them to receive the text in a particular way (8). One subcategory of the paratext, the "peritext" includes these material aspects of the book:

autour du texte, dans l’espace du même volume, comme le titre ou la préface, et parfois inséré dans les interstices du texte, comme les titres de chapitres ou certaines notes (10).

2In the case of the first Canadian edition of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 by The Ryerson Press, the peritext consists of two main elements: a foreword by Canadian writer Hugh Garner and a back-cover endorsement by Robert Weaver, Assistant Supervisor of Drama and Special Programs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In this paper, I return to the first edition to offer a reading that examines the tensions produced between the peritextual material and Munro’s text itself, arguing that, ironically, the peritextual zone enacts precisely the kind of patriarchal control against which Munro’s stories—most notably "The Office"—call into question.

3To the Ryerson Press’s editor-in-chief Robert Farr and Munro’s editor Audrey Toppings, Hugh Garner must have seemed an ideal choice to introduce Munro’s first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. At the time, a highly regarded, prolific Ryerson author who had won the 1963 Governor General’s Literary Award for his collection of short stories, Garner could claim a working-class background similar to that of Munro: he grew up in Cabbagetown, then one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto, while Munro grew up in the working-class south-western Ontario community of Wingham. Both writers would draw on their respective childhood communities to depict working-class struggles in their short fiction.

4Garner’s foreword—which was produced "within a week’s time" (Thacker 189)—fulfils some of the conventional functions of a genre meant to encourage a receptive readership: in its three short pages, it briefly outlines an aesthetic rationale for the literary merit of Munro’s stories—the stories are ostensibly about "ordinary people in ordinary situations, living ordinary lives and make the people, their lives and their situations not only plausible and pleasurable but artistically alive" (vii). The introduction rhetorically provides the then-relatively-unknown Munro credibility by placing her amongst an elite cohort of "real" short-story writers (viii) who would have been much more familiar to readers of the 1960s: "Ethel Wilson, Morley Callaghan, W.O. Mitchell, Brian Moore, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Ernest Buckler, and about as many more as can be counted on Lord Nelson’s fingertips" (viii). In spite of these gestures and the strong class connection between the two writers, Garner’s introduction betrays any possible solidarity in its profoundly problematic construction of gender and artistic labour.

5There are two main characteristics of the preface that serve to reinforce a patriarchal attitude toward women’s literary production. First, Garner rhetorically reinforces his own authority by quoting himself (viii), before hijacking the preface to privilege his own political agenda, using Munro and her text in favourable contrast to the contemporary writing he finds so disappointing. He devotes several paragraphs to disparaging unnamed "second-rate writers, the writers manqués, the professional-commercial writers" and lamenting the state of writing in Canada at the time. In a subsequent paragraph Garner offers his thoughts on a sociological problem of literary production in Canada: "The untrained short-story writer is the result of a lack of suitable markets and his own disinclination to go through a long and heartbreaking apprenticeship in his craft" (viii).

6In fact, Garner makes no attempt to connect any of his assertions about the challenges faced by Canadian writers in the literary market to Munro or Dance of the Happy Shades specifically. Presumably the quality of her stories which he praises represents her inclination toward apprenticeship, making it unnecessary for him to acknowledge any material circumstances that may have contributed to her success. Thus he does not consider, for example, Munro’s "long and heartbreaking apprenticeship" in [her] craft,” notably the challenges of negotiating her work as a mother, bookstore owner, and writer leading up to the publication of her first book. When her Ryerson Press editor Audrey Coffin wrote to request new stories for Dance of the Happy Shades, for example, Munro says "I remember writing back to her saying, you know, I’ve got a five-month-old baby, do you expect me to write three new stories? And [Coffin] wrote back and said, yes" (quoted in Thacker 187). The labour Garner does take the time to recognize in his preface, however, is the cultural work of men.

7Secondly, Garner uses the preface to establish fraternal connections with other male authority figures; to the degree there is engagement with Munro or her text, it is secondary. For example, Garner devotes an entire paragraph to praising the cultural work of CBC Radio’s Robert Weaver, "who uses more classic short stories, on radio and also as editor of Tamarack Review, than anybody in the country" (ix); Weaver, he tells us, is "Canada’s foremost short-story anthologist" (viii) and should be credited for rendering the CBC "the best market in Canada today for a good short story" (viii). It is certainly true that, through his radio program, Weaver was instrumental in the making public of work by new and little-known Canadian writers such as Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Leonard Cohen. Strangely, Garner never mentions that Weaver was also a key figure in Munro’s early career. Weaver, whom Munro connected with in 1951, "was consistently both critical and encouraging" (Thacker 138) and "[t]hroughout the 1950s, Munro kept writing stories, submitting them to Weaver for broadcast consideration and also sending them to magazines" (Thacker 136). Without the explicit connection to Munro, the reader would be at odds to see the relevance of Garner’s digression.

8A sympathetic reading of Garner’s preface might commend his reference to the of "lack of suitable markets" for the short story and Weaver’s cultural work as invoking a sociological framework to understand the struggles the Canadian literary industry faced at mid-century and an acknowledgement of what Bourdieu terms the field’s "agents":

[the sociology of literature] therefore has to consider as contributing to production not only the direct producers of the work in its materiality (artist, writer, etc.) but also the producers of the meaning and value of the work—critics, publishers, … and the whole set of agents whose combined efforts produce consumers capable of knowing and recognizing the work of art as such. (Bourdieu 37)

9Yet, as I have suggested, Garner’s framing of cultural work privileges male labour. Because Garner never makes explicit the relevance of Weaver’s work to Munro’s collection at hand—two of the stories in Dance of the Happy Shades were first published in Weaver’s Tamarack Review, for example—his paragraph-long praise for Weaver becomes one of several digressions in the preface that draw attention away from the book and the author it is meant to be introducing rather than helping to contextualize it.

10What is worse, Garner is aware of the implications of these digressions in praise of men’s cultural work at the expense of attention to Munro’s own artistic labour. He uses the direct-address to acknowledge the space he’s taken:

Excuse me, Mrs. Munro, for going off on that tangent, but your book seemed to me to be the best vehicle for stating things about the short story in general that most people do not seem to know.

Now back to your stories. (ix)

11The problem, of course, is this is an apology that is not one. Since the preface is written after the fact, Munro has no opportunity or means to respond. Thus, that the space of a woman writer’s first book—in other words, her venture into the professional sphere of book-publishing—"seemed to [Garner] the best vehicle for stating things about the short story" is a symbolic invasion of her space, a privileging of his voice (regardless of what topic he wishes to address) over hers.

12I am not the first to be critical of the preface to Dance of the Happy Shades: as Beth Harvor, an early reviewer of the book, noted, Garner turns the foreword into “a soapbox from which to attack younger writers and other forms and styles they work in” (quoted in Thacker 195). Similarly, in a review called "‘She’s Only a Girl,’ He Said,"—taking its title from one of the final lines in Munro’s story "Girls and Boys"—Audrey Thomas concludes that "this book is very fine and the stories are good reading always. I don’t however, recommend the introduction" (92).

13Curiously, Robert Weaver’s back-cover blurb has the dual effect of reinforcing the authority of Garner’s preface by paraphrasing part of it—Weaver’s text opens with the line "As Hugh Garner says in his introduction…"—while also implicitly raising the question of labour and the woman writer in its lament of the absence of more stories:

In the years that I’ve been an admirer of her work, both as a reader and an editor, the only thing that has been disappointing about her writing is that there hasn’t been more of it. Perhaps the publication of Dance of the Happy Shades is a good omen, because the book includes three new stories written during the past year. (Back-cover copy)

14To use the word "omen" is to imply that artistic production is driven uniquely by luck or some inexplicable source. It is deeply ironic then, that within the book Garner introduces and Weaver comments upon, Munro has written a story that addresses the labour of motherhood and professional writing, investigating the material conditions of writing.

15Munro’s story "The Office" features a woman writer who decides to rent an office, a professional space in which to write, in order to escape what she perceives to be the constraints of domesticity. The narrator outlines the deeply imbedded social and cultural attitudes of the 1950s wherein a man’s uninterrupted labour both in and out of the house was privileged over a woman’s:

A house is all right for a man to work in. He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house rearranges itself as best it can around him. Everybody recognizes that his work exists. He is not expected to answer the telephone, to find things that are lost, to see why the children are crying. He can shut his door. (Munro 2005, 55 original italics)

16The narrator’s emphasis on the universal recognition of a man’s work recalls the way, in contrast, the existence of Munros labour behind the writing of Dance of the Happy Shades is absent from discussion in the preface, while her less-than-prolific creative output is lamented in the back-cover copy without any attempt to consider how material challenges might effect men and women differently.

17Munro’s narrator does secure an office space but it comes with an unexpected problem that underscores cultural attitudes toward women’s space. Just as Garner presumes the preface of Munro’s first published book is the ideal space to inject what he admits are "tangents" and fails to accord her the respect of a preface attentive to the collection, so does the narrator’s new landlord, Mr. Malley, fail to respect the boundaries narrator’s professional work space. As E.D. Blodgett, observes, "[i]ronically her new landlord never lets her alone, constantly trying to invade her discourse with his" (28). Mr. Malley offers the protagonist suggestions for decorating the office space and, when she declines, he imposes what he considers his superior knowledge of women’s desires: "‘What you want is a nice easy chair to sit in"; he "looked around at everything with gloom and mystification and said it was an awfully uncomfortable space for a lady" (58). Still later he offers carpet, furniture, and curtains for "a touch of colour" (59) and when she refuses again, he insists "a woman wants things a bit cosier" (59), until finally she confronts him in a "cold voice that is to be heard frequently in my thoughts but has great difficulty getting out of my cowardly mouth" (59), which prompts an apology from Mr Malley. However, in an uncanny parallel to Garner’s paragraph-long apology ("Excuse me, Mrs. Munro, for going off on that tangent… Now back to your stories"), Mr. Malley’s apology is prefaced by a description of its disingenuousness: "His expression of humility was exaggerated, almost enough so to seem mocking, yet in another sense it was real and I felt unsure of myself" (59). Mr. Malley continues to privilege his own desire to intrude on the narrator’s time with his stories and becomes increasingly passive-aggressive, until the writer-protagonist finally packs up her office and returns to her home, intending to "try again someday, but not yet" (66).

18As Munro has revealed in interviews and an essay, "The Office" is a story based on her own experience of renting an office space and having her progress thwarted by a landlord who failed to respect the boundaries of her workspace. According to Munro’s biographer, the man "did bring plants and other things she did not want, told her stories she had no interest in, and irritated her by interrupting her writing. Their relations worsened and Munro left" (Thacker 175). In the end, "The Office" was the only story she completed there (Thacker 175). It is impossible to say whether, for the writer-protagonist or for Munro herself, the office would have proved an ideal space for the their artistic production, had they not been interrupted by real and fictive landlords. To speculate is not the point. Rather, Munro’s "The Office" depicts patriarchal attitudes toward a woman’s artistic labour, functioning as a kind of tutorial in the challenges faced by Canadian women writers of mid-century. That the peritext of Dance of the Happy Shades reproduces these attitudes results in an ironic first edition.

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Bibliography

Blodgett, E.D., Alice Munro, Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Bourdieu, Pierre,  The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and

Literature,  ed. Randall Johnson,  New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Garner, Hugh, "Preface" to Dance of the Happy Shades, Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968, vii-ix.

Genette, Gérard, Seuils, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987.

Munro, Alice, Dance of the Happy Shades, Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.

-----, Dance of the Happy Shades [1968], Toronto: Penguin, 2005.

Thacker, Robert, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography, Toronto: McClelland, 2005.

Thomas, Audrey, "‘She’s Only a Girl’, He Said", Review of Dance of the Happy Shades, Canadian Literature 39 (1969): 91-92.

Weaver, Robert, "Back Cover Copy", Dance of the Happy Shades, Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Karis Shearer, « "Now back to your stories": Framing the First Canadian Edition of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades », Caliban, 53 | 2015, 195-200.

Electronic reference

Karis Shearer, « "Now back to your stories": Framing the First Canadian Edition of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades », Caliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 28 January 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/1044 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.1044

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About the author

Karis Shearer

University of British Columbia, Assistant Professor.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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