Average Waves in Unprotected Waters Critical Overview
by Anne Tyler

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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Like most of her short stories, Anne Tyler’s ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ has been largely ignored by literary critics. Though very little has been written about the text, the story does encapsulate the Tyler reading experience as it focuses on themes of family, self-discovery, and the elevation of the ordinary to writers’ material. Broad criticism of Tyler’s work is therefore relevant to the story and certainly pertains to the growth of Tyler’s writing career.

Criticism began to really shape Tyler’s literary success in the late 1960s, when her work was reviewed and praised by critics John Updike and Gail Godwin. John Updike, in particular, provided a certain amount of fuel for Tyler’s career in his review of Searching for Caleb, as printed in Anne Tyler as Novelist, in which he says that Tyler is ‘‘not merely good, she is wickedly good.’’ Charlotte Templin in her article ‘‘Tyler’s Literary Reputation’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, says, ‘‘It seems safe to say that with one well-made phrase, Updike provided the nudge that raised Tyler to the rank of ‘important writers.’’’ Templin suggests throughout her piece that Tyler’s success has been influenced by critically timed reviews from literary giants and that her work’s themes provide an ‘‘ideological and sociocultural ‘fit’’’ for the American readership that makes them widely accepted and praised.

Tyler has been called a humanist, naturalist, and a romantic, whose influences are diverse. Alice Hall Petry, writing in her 1990 book, Understanding Anne Tyler, writes, ‘‘It would appear, indeed, that Tyler’s true literary forebears, the figures within whose tradition she seems most clearly to be working, are the writers of the Concord circle, the great Russian playwrights and novelists of the nineteenth century, and the writers of the modern South.’’ Petry also claims Tyler shares a connection to the romantics with her frequent focus on nurturance of self and self-reliance. The Anton Chekov connection that links Tyler to the Russian school of literature, says Petry, is apparent in Tyler’s ‘‘skewed dialogue, non sequiturs, illogical trains of thought.’’

One of Tyler’s self-acknowledged influences is the southern writer Eudora Welty. Robert W. Croft, in his book, An Anne Tyler Companion, recalls Tyler’s essay ‘‘Still Just Writing,’’ in which Tyler discusses Welty’s influence on her work. Welty, ‘‘whose stories,’’ Croft says, ‘‘taught her the importance of carefully chosen details and showed her the possibilities of writing about ordinary life,’’ provided Tyler with a model for writing the ordinary that has become implicit in her work. Templin recalls a review by Brigitte Weeks in Ms., in which Weeks made reference to Tyler’s use of the ordinary and called Tyler’s characters ‘‘Everyman’’ characters, or characters reminiscent of medieval morality plays in which the main character represented all humankind.

The realism and ordinariness of Tyler’s work has been disputed by other critics. Templin writes, ‘‘Tyler has been charged with a tendency to present a false or sentimentalized view of reality and an inability to sound the depths of human experience.’’ Even Updike, one of Tyler’s long-time supporters, posits that her books may lack substance. Templin discusses a Vivian Gornick review from the Village Voice in which Gornick attacks Tyler’s lack of depth and calls attention to fear of experience in Tyler’s work. She writes, ‘‘A pity: A good writer being rewarded for making virtue out of the fear of experience.’’ At the same time, critic Frances H. Bachelder, in her article ‘‘Manacles of Fear: Emotional Affliction in Tyler’s Works’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, defends the fear found in Tyler’s work. She says, ‘‘Over and over, these people are driven by fear, and their adaptation to that fear is one of Tyler’s central concerns.’’

For the most part, Tyler’s work has become popular with critics, scholars, and recreational readers. Templin states that ‘‘Tyler is sometimes called an apolitical novelist, but it would be more accurate to say that she shares the politics of the American majority.’’ Themes of ordinary life and broad political views have created a universal appeal and a mass popular audience for Tyler’s work. From the academic and literary side, Tyler’s psychology appeals to psychoanalytic critics just as her use of memory appeals to those critics writing about Jacques Lacan’s treatment of the unconscious. Even anthropologists find something in Tyler’s use of kinship to write about. The inclusion of ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ in many high school and college anthologies is one example of how Tyler’s fiction has been adopted by academic circles, and the thousands of paperbacks in print speak to her success with a general readership.