Mary Robison Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The short fiction of Mary Robison (born Mary Reiss), a major voice in the American short-story renaissance of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, helped redefine the genre. It explores, in an often astringent prose line that is both terse and elegant, the loneliness and absurdity of eccentric yet recognizable characters. A recurring theme is the struggle to touch purpose and dignity in lives that appear to be pointless and edging inexorably toward death.

Robison’s father was an attorney; her mother was a psychologist. After growing up with five brothers in a comfortable, upper-class household, Robison graduated from Ohio State University in 1976 with a degree in art history. She had long been interested in writing, largely poetry, a telling predisposition revealed in her later prose line by the scrupulous economics of paring down a sentence to its essentials.

She was accepted into the prestigious master’s program in creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, where she studied with novelist John Barth. Barth’s bold work of the 1960’s investigated the dynamics of the fictional process, thus creating for Robison an environment that encouraged her to experiment with the mechanics of narration. Although never entirely convinced fiction writing can be taught, Robison cited the Johns Hopkins program as pivotal in her evolution as a writer. She afterward remained within the academic environment, relishing the challenge of introducing the techniques of fiction to apprentice writers. In addition to accepting visiting lectureships at a number of prestigious universities, Robison taught at Harvard University from 1981 until 1995, when she joined the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

Under Barth’s direction, Robison initially experimented with slice-of-life fiction that, like that of Ernest Hemingway, revealed characters’ emotional distress and deep hurts indirectly but dramatically. She achieved this by focusing on apparently banal dialogue and surface details rather than by offering characters’ introspective commentary or intrusive authorial directives. Her short fiction would find immediate success. Completing the master’s program in 1977, she published two stories that year in The New Yorker, an association she would continue for years. Her fiction drew favorable reaction for its distinctive plainsong effect and attenuated prose that reveals, almost grudgingly, the thin lives it depicts. This type of fiction Robison would come to call “subtractionist,” indicating her careful decision to...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mary Robison was born in Washington, D.C., in 1949. Her father, Anthony Cennomo, was an attorney, and her mother, F. Elizabeth Reiss, a psychologist and the mother of eight children. She married James Robison, a writer. She spent most of her youth in the Midwest, but she received her M.A. at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She was visiting lecturer (1979-1980) at Ohio University, writer-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi, and has taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, College of William and Mary, Bennington College, Oberlin College, and in 1981 became the Briggs-Copeland assistant professor of English in the Department of Creative Writing at Harvard University. She has stated that her finest teacher at The Johns Hopkins University was the renowned novelist John Barth. She claims that she would not have taken her fiction writing seriously had it not been for The Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Program and Barth’s ability to inspire her to use her talent and publish her stories. As she put it: “John Barth charged a dead battery in me.” Robison has also judged national fiction competitions such as the one sponsored by the Mississippi Review.