How to Tell a True War Story Critical Overview
by Tim O’Brien

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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The Things They Carried, the collection in which ‘‘How to Tell A True War Story’’ appears, received rave reviews from critics and readers alike when it appeared in 1990. Many of the stories in the collection, including ‘‘How To Tell A True War Story,’’ had previously won awards following publication in periodicals such as Esquire, Ploughshares, and Atlantic Monthly. Indeed, critics such as Robert R. Harris, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the volume a must-read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried followed O’Brien’s National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, another novel which has as the subject a soldier’s Vietnam War experience. The Things They Carried was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. In addition, the book won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (The Best Foreign Book Award), an important French honor.

The Things They Carried met with immediate praise from reviewers, and, in nearly every review, ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ was singled out for comment. Reviewers and critics have returned to the story again and again, seeing in it the essence of O’Brien’s prose. In particular, the story seems to offer a blueprint for the larger book.

Early reviewers such as D. J. R. Bruckner were particularly taken by O’Brien’s attention to storytelling. Bruckner writes in his New York Times review, ‘‘In his new work the magic is in the storytellers’ prestidigitation as the stories pass from character to character and voice to voice, and the realism seems Homeric.’’ He further notes the way that ‘‘characters snatch stories from one another’s mouths and tell them in a different way, with different incidents.’’

In another early review for the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Loose observes that O’Brien’s talent is in convincing the reader that ‘‘incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam.’’ This comment is particularly apropos to ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story.’’ In this story, O’Brien not only includes incredible tales, he offers comments on why these are ‘‘true’’ tales, even if they never really happened.

Harris, in a review of The Things They Carried, praises the book as ‘‘essential fiction’’ about the Vietnam War. He closes the review with direct reference to ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story,’’ arguing that it ‘‘cuts to the heart of writing about war.’’

The story continued to draw favorable commentary from critics in the years following its publication. Because the story is so complicated, it is rich ground for scholars examining the Vietnam War and the literature it inspired. Steven Kaplan, for in instance, notes in a 1993 essay in Critique that, just as O’Brien invented his stories, the United States government had to invent Vietnam: ‘‘The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening storytellers.’’

Likewise, in a widely circulated and important critical study in Critique , Catherine Calloway focuses on the use of metafiction in the text. She is particularly interested in the way that O’Brien writes about the writing of fiction in his stories, especially in ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story.’’ She argues that...

(The entire section is 830 words.)