Tobias Wolff’s Liar

This short study is a good way to experience the Salon for the first time: the brief study will give you the room to consider this unique form of writing – the short story is not a novel, and not a poem, but perhaps between – and probably even more. “The Liar” by Tobias Wolff offers a protagonist caught in his own world, using language to separate and shield himself from those he loves – and fears. From a 2008 review on Slate by Judith Shulevitz: “One of the best stories in Our Story Begins, a collection of new and selected older stories by Tobias Wolff, is called “The Liar.” It’s about a teenage boy who regales strangers with dark fictions about his family—appalling accounts of misfortune and disease. These drive his mother crazy; a concrete, pious person, she can’t stand dishonesty, and she sends him to the family doctor. The charm of the story lies in the likability of its characters.”

Edgar Allen Poe argues that the writer of a short story should aim at creating a single and total psychological/spiritual effect upon the reader. The theme or plot of the piece is always subordinate to the author’s calculated construction of a single, intense mood in the reader’s or listener’s mind, be it melancholy, suspense, or horror. There are no extra elements in Poe, no subplots, no minor characters, and no digressions except those that show the madness of deranged first-person (“I”) narrators. Ultimately, Poe took writing to be a moral task that worked not through teaching lessons, but in simultaneously stimulating his readers’ mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties through texts of absolute integrity. As a literary ancestor of the form, Poe’s theories and practice offer a starting point to the development of the short story.

From a 1996 interview in “Short stories, like poems, demand a lot from their readers. Novels may be longer, but they don’t require the same compressed attention. They allow moments of relaxation; their narratives promise to hold you, however casual the concentration you invest.”
But Tobias Wolff, who is one of our great contemporary masters of the short story, says that the difficulty of the short story is its own reward. “The reader really has to step up to the plate and read a short story,” he once said. And the writer’s thrill is “working a miracle, making life where there was none” in the space of a few precisely and elegantly distilled pages. “There’s a joy in writing short stories,” he says, “a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.”

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Posted on

September 12, 2017