Winging It: Realism and Invention in the Stories of Tobias Wolff

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Criticism that has tried to come to terms with the outstanding short stories of Tobias Wolff (and writers associated with him) has often had recourse to variations of the contested term 'realism'. It is argued that the term still has its usefulness, but that it should not be seen to have the simplifying resonances sometimes attributed to it. In Wolff as much as in Flaubert 'realism' also involves 'invention' and imagination, or what Wolff has called 'winging it'. His finely crafted and subtle stories often take off into flights of poetry and imagination which question the fixed identities of realistic 'character' and allow for the variety of subject-positions sometimes seen as the exclusive province of non-realist writing.

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 by critical theorists as to be by now, in certain circles, unusable, attests to the power of the word for ordinary non-academic readers, a power arising from the fact that, in some way or other, it appeals to a notion of the real.[3] 'Authenticity', 'truth to life', 'actuality': concepts that turn out to involve such different claims and provide matter for whole volumes when examined by philosophers or literary theorists, seem to be terms the common reader and reviewer cannot do without.

What, in the face of this, should the academic critic who is more concerned with individual works and authors than with the latest development of postmodern theory, do to get a hearing for an author who seems to appeal to the taste for just those discredited categories? It seems a hopeless task to take on (yet again) the question on a theoretical level: to 'defend realism' along the lines of, for instance, some (though not most, even there) of the contributors to George Levine's conference collection Realism and Representation (1993) or Raymond Tallis's commonsensical In Defence of Realism (London: Arnold 1988). But more importantly (and not to seem to throw in the sponge out of despair), perhaps it is unnecessary. First of all, the tastes of the intelligent general reader need hardly be (indeed will not be) straitjacketed by theoretical correctness. And secondly (more importantly for criticism), the categories of theory frequently seem not a little heavy-footed in comparison with the practice of actual short story writers and novelists (one hesitates to say 'writers of fiction', since many theorists will be only too ready to argue that they write fiction too). One of my points about the stories of Tobias Wolff will be that experimentalism and 'realism' (in some sense of the word) are not mutually exclusive, and that the experiments of the 'realist' writer are often more engaging than those of the more self-consciously avant-garde. Another is that the virtues of 'the well-made story' (a term Wolff is not unwilling to use) and even, at times, of the effect of 'closure' (a term so dreaded, it seems, by future-oriented theorists) still have their place. …


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