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Aspen Winter Words: A short story about Tobias Wolff

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Elena Seibert Tobias Wolff appears in the final Aspen Writers' Foundation's Winter Words event, Thursday at the Given Institute.
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ASPEN – Tobias Wolff is no liar.

His father, yes, indeed, was a man prone to crafting fibs and falsehoods as a means of self-promotion. Wolff was guilty of similar untruths as a young man, forging letters of recommendation and fudging his academic records in applications to East Coast boarding schools to escape an unpleasant home life, as he recounted in his acclaimed memoir “This Boy’s Life.”

But the author doesn’t see any correlation between those lies and the fiction that has earned him critical praise and a comfortable living.

“Lying is kind of a symptom of indiscipline and laziness and indifference to the truth, and fiction is a process of trying very hard and often at some cost to get at the truth,” said Wolff, who appears Thursday at the Given Institute to close the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s 2010 Winter Words series. “[Fiction] requires a lot of discipline, both in work and in your life. I suppose there’s a certain imaginative dimension to telling lies, but most lies are pretty banal and self-promoting and predictable. Whereas fiction, if it’s like that, isn’t very good.”

Wolff’s fiction is good, and anything but predictable. His short stories are the model for what can be achieved with the form, a collection of compact, lyrical works that play on readers’ expectations and hint at larger themes. His fiction has also gained the author notoriety: His novella “The Barracks Thief” won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for 1985, and another novel, “Old School” was a finalist for the same award, while three of his short stories have earned O. Henry Prizes.

Wolff, who teaches English and creative writing at Stanford, has been quoted as saying that the short story is the “perfect American form” because of the nomadic, fractured lives that Americans lead. And yet, he’s also not surprised that Americans don’t read more short stories, given that the national attention span has shrunk to a new low in the age of YouTube and Twitter.

Short does not necessarily imply easier to digest when it comes to fiction, Wolff said. In fact, the opposite is most often true.

Before the advent of 24-hour cable television, video games and on-demand movies, “genre” short fiction maintained a niche in the entertainment market. As Wolff points out, the short stories found in science fiction and mystery magazines are now mostly a thing of the past, and what’s left is the literary form of short fiction.

“And the literary short story is a demanding form, and it’s probably, in some ways, at least as close to poetry as the novel, maybe closer in terms of the attention it demands,” Wolff said. “So much of a short story is implied. Part of the pleasure of reading a short story is to try to penetrate the surface to the unseen depths of the story. It is a pleasure. But it’s a pleasure that requires patience and a reader who is used to doing that kind of thing.”

Most readers, rather, are happier not to have to focus so intently in such a short time span and lose themselves in big, fat novels.

“Novels you can almost buy by the pound,” Wolff joked.

That, or memoirs, which have become a major force in the publishing world in the years since “This Boy’s Life” was released in 1989.

Wolff’s account of his unsettled adolescent life was a revelation and a smashing success. It spawned a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and created an opening for the likes of other talented writers to retell their life stories, among them Frank McCourt and JR Moehringer. In the same instance, the interest in compelling memoirs also contributed to the kind of fabrications of which Wolff is no fan, the kind of dishonesty that his father used to get undeserved recognition.

Lying?

“I would accept it to apply to something that says it’s a memoir that isn’t,” said Wolff, not naming names, but nonetheless hinting at other “memoirs” which, in recent years, have been exposed as outright fabrications. “I think that’s lying. Most of the books that have been exposed as false memoirs were books that I didn’t think much of anyway. It kind of reinforces my sense of the lie as being kind of an exercise in the predictable, kind of self-promoting, the banal.”

Or, in short, not worth the time to read.

npeterson@aspentimes.com


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