Navigate / search

Knopf archive documents Nobel Prize–winner Alice Munro’s early struggles with the genre of the short story

On Thursday, October 10, the Nobel Prize Foundation awarded the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature to author Alice Munro, making Munro the 13th woman to win the award since its inception in 1901, and the first ever female winner from Canada. Munro—unlike most previous prize winners—is renowned not for novels or poetry, but for short stories, most of which are drawn from her small-town upbringing in rural Ontario. Peter Englund, the secretary of the Swedish Academy that bestowed the award, called Munro a “master of the contemporary short story,” declaring that throughout her career she “has taken an art form. . . which has tended to come a little bit in the shadow behind the novel, and she has cultivated it almost to perfection.”

 

Upon receiving the award, Munro herself acknowledged her hopes that winning the prize would foster long overdue recognition for the short story as a genre on par with novels, poems, and plays. She stated “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

 

Indeed, documents in the Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Ransom Center reveal that Munro struggled for recognition of the short story as a sophisticated genre from the earliest days of her career. The Knopf collection contains two rejection sheets that address Munro’s work: one for Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), her first book of short stories, and another for Lives of Girls & Women (1971), her first novel. Both books were initially published by the Toronto house McGraw-Hill Ryerson and achieved such accolades in Canada that the firm sought a wider reading audience in the United States.

 

Upon reading Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968, Knopf editor Judith Jones wrote in her rejection sheet that although she “quite love[d] these stories,” she found “nothing particularly new and exciting here.” She also expressed misgivings about Munro’s future ability to develop longer forms of narrative: “her forte is the story; she doesn’t seem to have the larger reach of the novelist.” Two years later, after reading Munro’s first attempt at longer fiction, Jones reiterated her reservation toward an author seemingly not destined to develop into a bestselling novelist; after reading Lives of Girls & Women, she commented, “there’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,” and anticipated that the book would be “easily overlooked.” Jones rejected the novel, which was published in New York by McGraw-Hill in 1972, to great acclaim. Ironically, the success of Munro’s first novel encouraged McGraw-Hill New York to subsequently publish Munro’s first book of short stories in 1973—nearly five full years after its first appearance in Canada.

 

In an interview with The New Yorker in 2012, Munro stated that “for years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. . . . Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that.”

 

Since 1968, Munro has published 14 short story collections, almost all of which have been translated and distributed worldwide.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Fellows Find: Fleur Cowles archive sheds light on woman behind pioneering magazine “Flair”

Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 


Teal Triggs is a Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at Royal College of Art, London. She spent time at the Ransom Center over the summer exploring materials related to Fleur Cowles with funding from the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund. She shares some of her findings here.

 

With the support of the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund, I was able to spend two weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the personal archive of the journalist, painter, and American socialite Fleur Cowles (1908–2009). As a graphic design historian, my research has focused on the significance of the early 1950s American publication Flair magazine (1950–1951), created and edited by Cowles. The magazine ran for only 12 issues (with a limited-run, 5,000-copy, pre-publication prototype printed in September 1949), yet its influence would continue long after its closure. Whilst the Cowles archive at the Ransom Center is not specifically about Flair, it does contain related materials that provide useful insights into Fleur Cowles’s extensive social network, her commitment to the arts, and importantly for me, her working methods as a writer and editor.

 

Flair was very much a product of its time, simultaneously created as a response to the growth of specialist magazines and a nod to the new medium of television. As Cowles writes: “I wanted a magazine with ultimate dual reader appeal, male as well as female. And, in the frameword (sic) of television’s allure, I wanted a magazine of extraordinary visual excitement.” Flair achieved this with its unorthodox and experimental die-cut covers, unusual paper stock, tipped-in booklets, and luxurious use of space featuring illustration and photography. Undoubtedly, her editorial vision—signified by a drawing of her trademark rose—pushed the conventions of printing technologies and magazine design. Cowles found this a “thrilling gamble.” The original photographs in the collection show her sourcing paper in Milan and capture her exuberance in creating a magazine that has “a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery, with each new reading.”

 

As an editor, Cowles fulfilled, but also shaped, her reader’s aspirations. Flair was ultimately a reflection of Cowles’s own “jet-setting” lifestyle, with features on society’s elite, Hollywood celebrities, and exotic travel. The magazine featured those she knew and places she herself had visited, while often showcasing the contributions made by women with careers in politics. Flair was also a space where she expanded on her interest in design, with stories on interiors, architecture, and fashion. The archive material also shows that whilst Fleur promoted a stylized femininity, she was indeed a pioneer in promoting the role and careers of women in journalism and publishing.

 

Other documents in the collection clarify Cowles’s motivations. Before editing Flair, she was an Associate Editor at Look magazine—a publication owned by her then-husband “Mike” Gardner Cowles. One document that reveals Cowles’s commitment to gender equality is found in a speech she gave to the University of Syracuse and Syracuse Advertising and Sales Club on May 5, 1950. The title of her talk “The Woman in Publishing,” brought a decidedly feminist perspective to America’s publishing history, an aspect of her life I intend to explore further.

 

The opportunity to see the original magazines alongside supporting documents in the collection including letters, cards, telegrams, speeches, and manuscripts presented a rich context for my research, for which I am very grateful, and which will eventually appear in a book about Cowles’s impact on design.

 

Related content:

Publisher, author and artist Fleur Cowles’s archive donated to Ransom Center

Video: Fleur Cowles describes her artwork

Fleur’s Fleurs: “Flower Game” reveals friends and their favorite flowers

Slideshow: Cover art and designs of Flair magazine

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.

The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.

The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

McSweeney’s archive acquired

Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.
Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin.

The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.

“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”

The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.

The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Read more about the arrival of the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center.