Robert Olen Butler Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Robert Olen Butler often creates first-person narrators who are far different from him in terms of nationality, gender, age, and so on. What are some of the techniques he uses to make these different voices authentic and believable?

The Vietnam War and its aftermath have affected many of Butler’s protagonists. Critic Maureen Ryan argues that Butler’s are among the most successful Vietnam books because he always subordinates the war story to larger, more complex themes: “in these books the challenges and lessons of the war only complement the main character’s life experiences.” Test Ryan’s idea by applying it to one or more of Butler’s protagonists.

Many of Butler’s works introduce mythic or supernatural elements into otherwise realistic narrative worlds. What are the effects of this combination of fact and fantasy?

Go to the Web site and see how Butler created one of his stories from beginning to end. How does this Web site contribute to your understanding of Butler’s other works?

How does Butler reveal the nature of his first-person narrators? Do they simply tell us what kind of people they are, or do we learn about them in other ways as well?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Robert Olen Butler has received particular praise for his short stories, his work has mostly been in the novel genre, where his special interest has been in the Vietnam experience. The Alleys of Eden (1981), Sun Dogs (1982), and Deep Green Sea (1997) all deal with this subject. His novel They Whisper (1994) has received substantial critical attention.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Several of Robert Olen Butler’s stories have been selected for the annual publication The Best American Short Stories; he has also received a Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in fiction, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1987, the Vietnam Veterans of America gave him the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award for outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran. In 1993, he received the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although highly praised as a novelist, Robert Olen Butler has received his greatest acclaim for his work as a writer of short stories. He achieved national recognition in 1992 for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a celebrated collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees settled in communities in Louisiana. He has also published several other books of short stories, including Tabloid Dreams (1996), Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards (2004), Severance (2006), and Intercourse (2008). The nonfiction From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005), assembled and edited by Janet Burroway, transcribes events and ideas from a writing class taught by Butler.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Before succeeding as an author, Robert Olen Butler wrote several unpublished novels, and his first published work of long fiction, The Alleys of Eden, was rejected by at least twenty publishers before it was finally accepted. In spite of the rejections, Butler persisted, and The Alleys of Eden was praised by critics and reviewers when it was published in 1981. In 1984, Butler sold this first novel to the cable television network Home Box Office (HBO) to be made into a film for television. His work became well known to the general public, however, only in 1993, when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. That year he also received the Notable Book Award from the American Library Association and the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow. In 2001, Butler received the National Fiction Award for the short story “Fair Warning” (which he later extended into the novel of the same title), and in 2005 he won the National Magazine Award in Fiction for the story “The One in White.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Beidler, Philip D. Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Thought-provoking work places authors whose works concern the Vietnam War within their generation, providing readers with the appropriate context for understanding Vietnam fiction. A very good section on Butler places his novels within the genre and establishes and discusses the relationships among Butler’s The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, and On Distant Ground, which make up a trilogy about the Vietnam War.

Butler, Robert Olen. “An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Interview by Michael Kelsay. Poets and Writers (January/February, 1996): 40-49. In a meaty interview, Butler discusses his life and work, addressing such topics as his distaste for being called a “Vietnam” novelist, the importance of the concrete world to the novelist, and how he came to write A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Includes some brief analyses of Butler’s themes.

Diskin, Trayce. “From Tabloid to Truth: Using Tabloid Dreams to Inspire Powerful Fiction.” English Journal 89, no. 4 (2000): 58-65. Uses Butler’s novel as an example of connecting to emotional truths through seemingly sensational topics.

Ewell, Barbara. “Tabloid Dreams.”...

(The entire section is 548 words.)