Lorrie Moore

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

Lorrie Moore emerged in the late twentieth century as a strong new voice in American fiction. Born Marie Lorena Moore, she was later nicknamed Lorrie by her parents, Henry T. Moore, Jr., an insurance executive, and Jeanne Day Moore, who left a career in nursing to become a homemaker. As students, both parents had demonstrated literary aspirations; her father wrote short stories while a classmate of Evan S. Connell and Vincent Canby at Dartmouth College. However, Moore was not encouraged by her parents to pursue writing as a career, even though she displayed an early interest in creative writing.

As an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, she chose English as her major—despite her enthusiasm for playing the piano—and was editor of the literary journal. When she was nineteen years old, Moore won Seventeen magazine’s fiction-writing contest for her short story “Raspberries.” She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1978 and worked as a paralegal in Manhattan for two years before entering the M.F.A. program at Cornell University.

At Cornell, she studied with novelist Alison Lurie, whose agent presented Moore’s work to the Knopf publishing company in 1983. Two years later, Knopf published Moore’s first collection of short fiction, Self-Help. The stories, most of which were written as part of her master’s thesis at Cornell, mimic the style of self-improvement manuals of the day. “How to Become a Writer” ostensibly is pitched to budding authors, encouraging them first to consider abandoning their literary ambitions. The disjointed narrative of “How to Be an Other Woman” relates the shifting identity of a woman narrator who becomes involved romantically with a married man and discovers that she is not the only “other woman” in the arrangement. Notably, Moore’s use of second-person point of view in Self-Help represents an experiment with perspective that continues throughout the body of her work. Critics praised the stories for their witty depictions of contemporary life.

By the time Self-Help appeared, Moore had accepted the post of assistant professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During this period, she returned to New York every summer, drawn to the energy of the city and loath to abandon that part of her life. Eventually, however, she married and settled in Madison with her husband, Mark, an attorney. The apparent alienation she experienced as a young academic in the Midwest reverberates throughout much of her work in stories that feature woman protagonists (often academics) who find themselves at odds with boyfriends or husbands who are not their intellectual matches.

Moore’s first novel, Anagrams, was published in 1986 to mixed reviews, but her second collection of short fiction, Like Life, was roundly acclaimed four years later. It included “You’re Ugly, Too,” which was the first of her stories to be published in The New Yorker and was included among the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories in 1989. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, a novel focusing on the friendship of two adolescent girls, was also well received.

In 1998 her third book, Birds of America, appeared. This collection of short fiction was hailed as the product of a mature artist and included the short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” which had been published previously in The New Yorker and had won an O. Henry Prize. The story of a mother who must deal with her infant’s serious illness was speculated by some readers to be an account of Moore’s experience as the mother of a young son with cancer. Moore said that, though her son’s illness prompted her to write the story, it is not autobiographical. Critic Vince Passaro called the story a “small masterpiece.”

Moore was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1989), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1989), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1991). Her work has been included several times in Best American Short Stories and in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and has been published in such magazines and journals as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. She returned to Cornell in 1990 as a visiting associate professor, became a full professor at Wisconsin in 1991, and in 2000 served as Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College.

On the whole, critics have received Moore’s short fiction more enthusiastically than her novels. In a review of Like Life, novelist and critic Stephen McCauley praised Moore for her “wry view of behavior wryly expressed.” Failed communication—between wives and their husbands, between adult children and their parents—is a recurring theme. Dark humor and irony, as well as innovative use of simile and point of view, have been identified as hallmarks of her writing, and her work has been compared to that of such American luminaries as Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, and Ann Beattie.

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