Wolff, Tobias (Short Story Criticism)
Tobias Wolff 1945–-
(Full name Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, and journalist.
The following entry provides criticism on Wolff's short fiction career from 1982 to 2001. See also Tobias Wolff Literary Criticism.
Wolff has been a preeminent force on the American literary landscape since receiving the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella The Barracks Thief in 1985. He has since earned additional acclaim for his short fiction and memoirs. Often compared to Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Wolff writes stark, ambivalent portrayals of contemporary existence that are often humorous and piercing exposés of hypocrisy. His prose, understated and lyrical, serves to illuminate critical points in the lives of his characters, generally failures or discontented individuals who find themselves at a moral crossroads. Despite occasional criticism for plot gimmicks or using a tone irreverent to his subject-matter, Wolff is generally recognized as a skilled storyteller whose narratives candidly portray the human quest to establish order or purpose in life.
Born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a secretary and waitress, and Arthur Saunders Wolff, an aeronautical engineer, Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff grew up in Chinook, Washington (outside of Seattle) with his brother Geoffrey Wolff, also a writer. Tobias's experiences with his mother and abusive step-father made his a troubled childhood; his unhappiness and feelings of powerlessness led him to lying and petty thievery as a means for rebellion. After being expelled from an esteemed preparatory school as a teenager, Wolff enlisted in the Army and served for four years (1964-1968) in Vietnam as a lieutenant with the Special Forces. Upon his return Wolff was accepted into Oxford University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1972 and an M.A. in 1975. He also earned an M.A. from Stanford in 1978. In addition to writing, Wolff has served as a reporter for the Washington Post and has held academic posts at Goddard College, Arizona State University, Temple University, and Syracuse University. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at Stanford. He and his wife Catherine split their time between Northern California and upstate New York. They have three children.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Wolff's highly praised first collection of short fiction, contains twelve stories that focus upon lonely characters facing the consequences of past decisions. In the title story, an overly obsequious university teacher is interviewed for a position at a prestigious college in the East. When she discovers that she was never under serious consideration for the opening, she speaks out eloquently and controversially for the first time in her career. In “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” a man discovers how far removed his values are from those of most people, and that he is unable to positively affect the lives of others through his work in academia. “Face to Face” depicts the failure of a romantic weekend vacation for a couple increasingly isolated from each other. Critics commended these stories for the wealth of metaphorical meaning beneath simple, natural language.
Wolff's novella The Barracks Thief concerns three American paratroopers stationed in North Carolina during the Vietnam War; they bond together through a shared temptation to allow an approaching forest fire to consume the ammunition dump that they are guarding. Told retrospectively by a soldier named Bishop, The Barracks Thief explores the question of whether it is better to die young and tragically or to live a long, but dull, conventional life.
Back in the World (1985), Wolff's second collection of short fiction, takes its title from the hopes of American Vietnam War veterans for clarity and purpose after their tour of duty. Other stories include “Coming Attractions,” featuring a lonely fifteen-year-old girl who makes phone calls that reveal her lack of close relationships, even among her family. “The Missing Person” is a comical story concerning Father Leo, whose failures include his latest assignment at a parish that has little use for his spiritual guidance. In general, Wolff's stories include a character whose circumstances lead him or her to dissembling as a way of creating a new self or revealing hidden truths.
Wolff's The Night in Question (1996) collects fifteen short stories in which the characters search for the essence of life that lies hidden beneath quotidian surfaces. In “Chain,” a man seeking revenge after a dog attacks his daughter gratefully accepts a friend's offer to kill the animal, the first in a series of reprisals that ultimately results in tragedy. “The Other Miller” is about a boy whose plan to punish his mother by joining the army proves futile. “Mortals” tells of a man who, eager to know what his friends say about him, sends his own obituary to the local newspaper. Other stories feature a book critic who is shot and killed while standing in line at the bank, a young woman who visits her father after his nervous breakdown, and a devoted sister struggling with a sermon her brother insists on reciting. Salvation is hard to come by for these characters, all of whom lack self-awareness. Their self-deceptions are not only humorous, but also morally tenuous, laying the groundwork for a collection of stories that read like parables and are often as edifying as they are ironic.
Wolff has received a great deal of critical acclaim for his precise, evocative language as well as his insight into the lives of a diverse range of characters. Wolff often addresses the complexity of human experience in his work, considering related themes prismatically. Moral choices and familial connections are the primary concerns of his oeuvre, which many interpret as an inquiry into the conditions necessary for the establishment of positive identity or self-esteem. Wolff's prose style is direct and his vocabulary consistently accessible. Some have called his stories gimmicky, others have faulted him for failing to resolve his plots, but even Wolff's worst critics seem impressed by the depth, power, and candor of his narrative voice.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs 1981; also published as Hunters in the Snow, 1982
Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories [editor] 1982
The Barracks Thief 1984; also published as The Barracks Thief and Other Stories, 1984
Back in the World 1985
A Doctor's Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov [editor] 1988
*The Stories of Tobias Wolff 1988
The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories [editor] 1993
Best American Short Stories [editor] 1994
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories [editor and author of introduction] 1994
The Night in Question 1996
Writers Harvest 3 [editor and author of introduction] 2000
Ugly Rumours (novel) 1975
This Boy's Life: A Memoir (memoir) 1989
In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (memoir) 1994
Old School (novel) 2003
*This collection contains Hunters in the Snow, Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief.
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SOURCE: Sutcliffe, Thomas. “Things Falling Apart.” Times Literary Supplement (30 July 1982): 815.
[In the following review, Sutcliffe calls Hunters in the Snow dispiriting and remarks that the stories' individual strengths are overshadowed by the collection's dejected tone.]
Short stories are sometimes referred to as if they were an endangered species, urgently in need of acts of conservation by well-disposed publishers and fiction editors who can commission collections and anthologies. Reading Hunters in the Snow it is hard not to feel that in some cases benign neglect might be a more effective policy, leaving the genre to work out its own survival in the environment of glossy monthlies and literary reviews. It isn't that Tobias Wolff's collection contains a single story that shouldn't have been published at some time, somewhere. His melancholy and regretful accounts of the hazards of sociable solitude and the pitfalls of the urbane jungle might have contrasted well with the sophisticated enthusiasms of Tri-Quarterly or Vogue. A story about social emulation in an American prep school probably sounded an effective dissonance when printed in Atlantic Monthly, just as an account of the humiliations of the academic life would have an extra edge for the readership of Anteus. But when they are removed from their natural habitat, the effect of the stories is...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Back in the World, by Tobias Wolff. Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 November 1985): 3.
[In the following review of Back in the World Eder says that Wolff “writes with a lavish display of skill.”]
The land of disquiet explored by a segment of American fiction is prosperous, druggy and largely devoted to games. A lot of work gets done, or it couldn't be paid for. But you don't see the work; it isn't really part of life except as an off-stage drain on the spirits.
The games that the inhabitants consider their real life are played in a state of crowded anxiousness. They offer an illusion of companionship, but they are essentially solitary. Everyone brings his or her own board; the other players can be painlessly evicted and sent away.
Tobias Wolff, like other masters of the territory such as Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme, writes of the pain inside the painlessness. In the depleted atmosphere, every scream is silent. Each of Wolff's stories is an amplifier picking up the sound that cannot get through.
Like an ophthalmological surgeon with huge hands, Wolff presents the paradox of a big energy applied to microscopic artisanry. The stories in Back in the World fairly prance with a natural storyteller's repressed high spirits. The best of them are feverish and dramatic; there is a hint that the...
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SOURCE: Glasser, Perry. “Reading in Love.” North American Review 270, no. 4 (December 1985): 76-7.
[In the following review, Glasser praises Back in the World for its candor and poignancy.]
Reading a good short story is like falling in love. Some quirk, some strangeness, some difference, piques your attention. That difference becomes enchanting. You smile at it, wondering briefly how it could come to be, but not caring really because it has the charm of novelty, so you go with it, lingering a bit longer out of interest and bemused curiosity. Then you begin to become aware of imperfections. There's a wart of self-consciousness here, a compulsion to melodrama there, a neurotic insistence on a world view that because it does not match your own seems perverse and wrong-headed. If the story is truly seductive, you overlook those flaws and try to accept the story for what it is. You go on, maybe with a touch of fear at risking being led to a new place, but certainly with the thrill of taking that risk. And you love the story more for that. If the story becomes powerful, you re-examine yourself with wonder. You've been so complacent! You want to change. This is no longer a flirtation. You abandon caution and invite the story to move in with you, you forget everything else you're responsible for, and the story is all you care about.
But the terrible moment arrives, as it must,...
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SOURCE: Simpson, Mona. “The Morality of Everyday Life.” New Republic 193 (9 December 1985): 37-8.
[In the following essay, Simpson traces the recurrence of certain moral questions throughout In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, The Barracks Thief, and Back in the World.]
People in Tobias Wolff's stories often ask each other questions like “What's the worst thing you've ever done?” They say these things while driving cars, while on watch at United States military installations, and during parties. They say, “You are about to hear my absolute bottom-line confession. The worst story ever told.” Less often, it's “Why don't you tell us something good you did? The thing you're most proud of.” From the publication of Wolff's first collection of short stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs in 1981, Wolff has shown interest in the very worst things people do to each other. He also notes more charitable deeds. He has a supple ability to find moral dimensions in ordinary American life. Fortunately, he is also a master of humor.
At least three stories in the first collection seem among the most memorable stories of the last 20 years. Perhaps the best story is “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke.” The story follows a grown-up goody-goody who, when asked to recount his worst deed, panics and thinks back to small crimes committed when he...
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SOURCE: Woodruff, Jay and Tobias Wolff. “Tobias Wolff: Interview.” In A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions, edited by Jay Woodruff, pp. 22-40. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
[In the following interview, originally published in Contemporary Literature, spring 1990, Wolff discusses his approach to the writing and revision of the title story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.”]
[Woodruff]: How did [“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”] get started? What was its genesis?
[Wolff]: Well, there are a few things that I can trace it to. One is a job interview I had several years ago which was not, it turned out, a serious interview. That is, I had been brought across the country in order to fulfill a requirement of the college that so many people be interviewed for each position. And when I found this out it really burned me up. I tried writing the story a couple of times from a personal point of view, my own point of view. This never really took. It sounded whiny, “poor me.” After all, I live a rarified life, one that's lucky compared to almost everybody else's. This didn't seem to be the stuff of tragedy.
I'd had the experience of watching my mother struggle and have a harder time of it than she would have had if she were a man. It occurred to me that this was the kind of experience women...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Child Is the Father of the Man.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 October 1996): 2.
[In the following review of The Night In Question, Eder discusses how Wolff handles the subject childhood and adolescence.]
Like Antaeus, the mythological giant who was invincible as long as his feet touched ground—Hercules defeated him by hoisting him over his head—Tobias Wolff needs earth to stand on. The solidity it gives him liberates an artistry shot through with colors, subtleties, nuances and fantasy. He finds his Antaean earth mainly in two things: war and childhood. On other themes, seeking an equivalent ground, his stories sometimes force their conclusions.
Author most recently of In Pharaoh's Army (war) and This Boy's Life (childhood), Wolff is rarely less than agile and alluring. He will hone and shape a phrase so that the page becomes a jigsaw puzzle into which it locks: the undreamed-of and only possible fit.
Of the 15 stories in this new collection, one touches on war and eight on childhood or adolescence; with an exception or two they are propelled by the spirit Wolff gives them, not the design he arranges for them. Several of the others, readable and attractive, show signs of gimmickry. All short stories are traps: From some we retain the living prey; from others, the ingenious mechanism.
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SOURCE: Stone, Robert. “Finding Mercy in a God-forsaken World.” Times Literary Supplement (15 November 1996): 23
[In the following review of The Night in Question, Stone remarks on Wolff's moral perspective and the religious overtones in his work.]
The work of Tobias Wolff provides a blend of satisfactions not always available in combination. Wolff is both subtle and passionate. He often appears as a wry but sympathetic observer of the disappointments and petty strategies that define obscure unexamined lives. Yet, his true subject is nothing less than the world, how it goes. He is not a wringer of significances from everything in sight; few writers are less pretentious. At the same time, few can describe with so steady a hand the summoning of interior resources by unlikely figures whom some force has chosen to ennoble by pain and spare or destroy. He never backs away from the implications he has invoked, never tries through superficial reductions to suggest that misfortune and grief are finally mere absurdities. His people fall victim to the ridiculous, of which he has a strong sense, but they are always something more than clowns and never altogether innocents.
In other words, Wolff is neither sentimental nor cynical; he has a sensibility that presumes to judge some things as more important than others and some actions as more worthy. In writing informed by drollery and wit,...
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SOURCE: Smith, Joan and Tobias Wolff. “Speaking into the Unknown.” Salon.com, http://archive.salon.com/dec96/interview961216.html (December 1996).
[In the following interview, Wolff discusses short fiction as a genre and also describes his approach to writing a short story.]
Short stories, like poems, demand a lot from their readers. Novels may be longer, but they don't require the same compressed attention. They allow moments of relaxation; their narratives promise to hold you, however casual the concentration you invest.
But Tobias Wolff, who is one of our great contemporary masters of the short story, says that the difficulty of the short story is its own reward. “The reader really has to step up to the plate and read a short story,” he once said. And the writer's thrill is “working a miracle, making life where there was none” in the space of a few precisely and elegantly distilled pages. “There's a joy in writing short stories,” he says, “a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.”
Wolff is best known for his two dazzling memoirs—This Boy's Life, the story of his precarious childhood in a small town north of Seattle which was made into a movie starring Ellen Barkin and Robert De Niro; and In Pharoah's Army, about his reluctant stint as an officer...
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-44. Boston: Twayne, 1996.
[In the following essay, Hannah studies each of the twelve stories that compose In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, focusing on how each reflects themes about changing one's life for the better.]
It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it's one of the affirming arts. It's one of the most intimate things that people do together. … A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.
Tobias Wolff, from an interview with Jean W. Ross
In 1981, such an “optimistic act” as Tobias Wolff describes above took place with the publication of his collection of a dozen stories intriguingly entitled In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, from a line in Roger Weingarten's book of poems Ethan Benjamin Bolt—a line, Wolff writes, that “just lashed out at me.”1 This addition to what was then considered to be the renaissance of the American short story was met with ample and favorable critical response. Richard Orodenker, writing in the North American...
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Back in the World.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 45-102. Boston: Twayne, 1996.
[In the following essay, Hannah reviews each of the ten stories in Back in the World and compares the collection to In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. Hannah concludes that, while the two share some subject matter and style, Back in the World is notably less optimistic about the possibility of improving one's situation in life.]
The desire to subvert and to probe and to question and to dig the foundations out from under everybody and to represent fraudulent selves to the world, all that is contained and legitimized in imaginative acts. What is destructive and also self-destructive is transformed. You don't give it up. You just find a way of using it.
Tobias Wolff, from an interview with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver
Between the publication of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs in 1982 and Back in the World in 1985, Tobias Wolff had been generously recognized. In the Garden [In the Garden of the North American Martyrs] had received the St. Lawrence Award in fiction and been published in England as Hunters in the Snow. His novella, The Barracks Thief, had won the PEN/Faulkner Award. And...
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Published but Uncollected Stories.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 89-100. Boston: Twayne, 1996.
[In the following essay, Hannah reviews several stories that have appeared in anthologies and magazines but that Wolff has yet to include in a collection of his short fiction.]
When I sit down to write, I discover things that I have, for one reason or another, not admitted, not seen, not reflected on sufficiently. And those are the things that I live for in other people's fiction as well as my own.
Tobias Wolff, from an interview with Jay Woodruff
Since the publication of Back in the World in 1985, Wolff's fiction has been well served in the reprint market. The Barracks Thief and Other Stories (including Wolff's novella plus six stories from In the Garden [In the Garden of the North American Martyrs]) and The Stories of Tobias Wolff (issued in England and incorporating In the Garden, Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief) have been published. Wolff has also tried his hand quite successfully at memoir with This Boy's Life, which was made into a motion picture,1 and, most recently, with In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, which offers poignant testimony to a...
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SOURCE: Kelly, Colm J. “Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff's ‘Say Yes’.” Mosaic 32, no. 1 (March 1999): 149-66.
[In the following essay, Kelly uses Wolff's short story “Say Yes” to help delineate the nature of a deconstructive approach to literature, as opposed to a sociological-contextualist one.]
Addressing the current emphasis on broadly sociological-contextualist approaches to literature, this essay uses Tobias Wolff's short story “Say Yes” to explore the viability of three possible interpretations and attempts to delineate the nature of a deconstructive approach.
Deconstruction in literary studies is now frequently understood to be a type of formalism in contrast to approaches such as new historicism and cultural studies, which give renewed emphases to the various contexts of literary works. At the same time, these latter approaches have absorbed or been touched by deconstructive themes, so that they seem to share a certain tone and terminology with deconstruction. In sociology and social theory, deconstruction never had the direct influence which it once exerted in literary studies, but here too apparently deconstructive elements can be found in various forms of social constructionism. Conversely, however, defenders of deconstruction themselves argue that the charges of...
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SOURCE: Scofield, Martin. “Winging It: Realism and Invention in the Stories of Tobias Wolff.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 93-108.
[In the following essay, Scofield argues that realism and experimentalism in literature are not mutually exclusive concepts.]
What is the best way to get a critical purchase on the stories of Tobias Wolff? Inevitably, he has hitherto been put in the critical filing cabinet in one of the sections of the drawer marked “Realism.” As long ago as 1963 Gordon Becker wrote in the introduction to his Documents of Modern Literary Realism: “Certainly it would add to ease of discourse in the future if whatever happens next should be given a new name, and not be tagged with some variant or permutation of the word ‘realism’.”1 But this has not prevented the persistence of the (more or less serious) permutations: “Dirty Realism” (Granta, 8 [Summer 1983], a volume that brought together work by Wolff, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, and others), “New Realism,” “Neo-domestic Neo-Realism,” “Wised Up Realism,” or John Barth's engaging parody of the Polonius-like yen for classification, which might just fit Carver in his early phase, but hardly suits Wolff or the others: “Post-Alcoholic Blue-Collar Minimalist Hyperrealism.”2 The persistence of the term, so mocked and excoriated...
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Peterson, Anne Palmer. “And Finally … Talking with Tobias Wolff.” Continuum Online, http://www.alumni.utah.edu/continuum/summer98/finally.html (summer 1998).
Interview with Tobias Wolff.
Schrieberg, David. “Interview: Tobias Wolff.” Stanford Today Online, http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/stanfordtoday/ed/9809/9809fea101.shtml (September/October 1998).
Interview with Tobias Wolff
Clute, John. “Reports from the Regions.” Times Literary Supplement (13 May 1988): 532.
Review of The Stories of Tobias Wolff.
Cox, Shelley. Library Journal 110, no. 17 (15 October 1985): 104.
Review of Back in the World.
Greenwell, Bill. “Goose Corn.” New Statesman 104, no. 2679 (23 July 1982): 23.
Review of Hunters in the Snow.
Knudsen, James. World Literature Today (summer 1997): 600.
Review of The Night in Question.
Mitchell, Eleanor. Library Journal (15 September 1994): 93.
Review of The Vintage Book of...
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