- Old School by Tobias Wolff
Bloomsbury, 195 pp, £12.99, February 2004, ISBN 0 7475 6948 7
‘I can’t imagine anything more quaint than a scatological retelling of some nursery tale, or a fiction about a writer writing the fiction you are reading,’ Tobias Wolff confessed in his 1993 introduction to the Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories. Writing fiction about a writer who is writing the fiction we are reading, Wolff would have us understand, is obscene. A writer reaching out from behind the curtain of the page to wave at the crowd undermines the enterprise: the rich illusion of reality is ruined. The writers whom Wolff esteems most – among them Kafka, Hemingway and Chekhov – share ‘the ability to breathe into their work distinct living presences beyond their own: imagined Others fashioned from words, who somehow take on flesh and blood and moral nature’.
Wolff therefore has no tolerance for Postmodernism. The Postmodern and metafictionist ‘impatience with the inherited forms and assumptions of realistic fiction’ leaves him cold, and of the 42 stories he chose to offer British readers as a representative portrait of recent American output, his preference for writing that exhibited ‘an unembarrassed faith in the power of stories to clarify our sense of reality’ resulted in his failure to include even a single story written in the Postmodern manner.
Raymond Carver, to whom the volume was dedicated, was the anthology’s presiding deity, and the stories that made Wolff’s cut, like those for which Carver was famous, tended to highlight the fraught domestic dynamics of modern life, ‘difficulties between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers’. Most were written by established names, among them Frank Conroy, Stuart Dybeck, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone and Amy Tan. Those writers known partly for formal experimentation whose work Wolff did include (among them Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson and Mary Robison) did not, in the stories Wolff selected, engage with the question of how a story convinces us of its reality. This is not to say that the stories Wolff selected were not interesting stories. Rather, it became abundantly clear that he had very narrow criteria for what makes a story interesting.
What is interesting now, ten years later, is how unrepresentative Wolff’s selection has turned out to be. His 724-page anthology managed to exclude two generations of avant-garde American writing that have flourished and endured. Wolff sidestepped Postmodern elders such as John Barth, Robert Coover, Guy Davenport, William Gass, Harry Mathews, Paul Metcalf, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Sukenick and Paul West, as well as their heirs, such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, Lydia Davis, Rick Moody, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace. None of these writers – however popular or influential, however frequently their writing appeared in the Paris Review or Conjunctions or the year-end Best American and Pushcart anthologies – managed to stir him. The ‘tone of mandarin scorn in which the Postmodern ironist not infrequently addresses his readers’ proved incompatible with Wolff’s idea of the writerly endeavour.
We writers are too careful not to romanticise our calling. We’re afraid of sounding soft-headed and self-indulgent. The idea is to make it seem a job like any other. Well, it isn’t. Nobody would do it if it were. Romance is what keeps us going, the old romantic Frankenstein dream of working a miracle, making life where there was none. That’s what these writers are after, and if they were after anything less, why should we read them?
Officially, Wolff is the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction. A first novel, Ugly Rumours, a tale of the Vietnam War, appeared in Britain in 1975 but is always omitted from his list of publications. To read it is to understand why: the book is a simplistic, moralising mess. Wolff’s pair of protagonists, a Special Forces lieutenant and an Army sergeant, are two-dimensional stand-ins for Big Ideas: the cynical non-believer and the conflicted man of faith. They never take on Wolff’s desired ‘flesh and blood and moral nature’. In the book’s best scene, however, there is a suggestive seed of achievement to come. The cynical lieutenant, Woermer, wounded on duty after he agrees to go on a manoeuvre in place of his sergeant friend, is interviewed by an English journalist hungry for gory details:
Woermer, in desperation, tried to explain how it felt to have a mine go off almost under your feet, the sound so loud you could not hear it, the sudden lightness of body, all of it. But the right words would never come . . . His imagination took over from his memory. He led the scribbling Englishman through tiger-infested jungles, escapes from entire divisions of hardcore Vietcong, and daring daylight raids on enemy headquarters. Woermer told these lies without pleasure, because he saw the reporter had no respect for truth.