War Writing Anxiety of Influence: Bobbie Ann Mason and Tim O’Brien

Leon Uris's Battle Cry was a best-seller in 1953. In 1955, it was made into a movie that I loved as a kid.

Leon Uris’s Battle Cry was a best-seller in 1953.

The back cover verbiage offers a fair assessment of what war writers and war writing marketeers thought was important in 1953: men and manliness.

The back cover verbiage offers a fair assessment of what war writing marketeers thought was important in 1953: men and manliness.

“Anxiety of influence” is a phrase associated with literary critic Harold Bloom. It refers to the response of authors to important and beloved precursor authors by writing works that either imitate cherished models or attempt to surpass them. The phrase was on my mind as I composed my spoken comments at our MLA 16 roundtable discussion “Contemporary Literary of the Forever Wars,” which I have excerpted below. Please read them in conjunction with my published remarks about war-writing authored by women at our panel website.

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“…almost nobody, it seems, remembers Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1985 novel In Country or has seen the 1989 movie based on it. This is curious, because Mason’s novel was critically praised upon publication and reasonably popular (the movie a little bit less so). This is curious because In Country dramatizes issues still very current in today’s body of war fiction: the troubled vet, the problem of homecoming, the difficulty of finding words to convey the experience of war, the vexed dispute over authority and right-to-speak about war, and an already yawning civil-military divide. This is curious, because In Country was authored by a woman and is narrated through the perspective of a young woman named Samantha Hughes, the niece of its troubled Vietnam vet protagonist.

“I don’t know if women or male authors of contemporary war fiction feel the force of Mason’s influence—I haven’t read or heard any of them say so—and I haven’t (yet) done the legwork of tracing the exact lines of connection between Mason and contemporary war writing. I won’t even say much more about Mason here, but rather speculate about the Vietnam War author everybody HAS read and praised: Tim O’Brien, and specifically O’Brien’s short-story ‘How to Tell a True War Story.’ One reason ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ is so popular is because it addresses and dramatizes what have emerged as the driving aesthetic and ethical imperatives of contemporary war writing: its relationship to ‘truth,’ its effort to define what is really important about the experience of war, and its attempt to adjudicate who has the right to decide what is really important about the experience of war.

“Upon rereading ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ recently, however, I came to the conclusion not that the story pronounces definitively on the business of writing about war, but that O’Brien’s narrator—who is quite distinct from O’Brien himself, in my reading–is quite possibly insane, or at least driven to sputtering frustration by his inability to explain exactly how to tell a true war story, or to demonstrate what a true war story really looks like. If I were to read ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ out-loud, I would do so as if it were a nineteenth-century dramatic monologue along the lines of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ or Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’—the last thing the narrator is at the end of the story is calm, reasonable, and satisfactorily arrived at an explanation of what a true war story is all about. Its famous last lines, ‘It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen’ deserve to be shouted, not patiently explained, with the narrator becoming ever more agitated and inchoate. The surety with which he has begun his tale has evaporated in the face of the difficulty of extrapolating meaning from the anecdotes he relates and the inadequacy of his epigrammatic stabs at profundity.  Statements such as ‘A true war story is never moral’ and ‘True war stories do not generalize’ are not home-truths then, but desperate last-ditch hand-holds on the way to radical incoherence.

“And what about the ‘sisters who never write back’—specifically the ‘dumb cooze’ sister of Curt Lemon—and ‘those people who never listen’? By ‘those people,’ the narrator seems to have in mind the woman of ‘kindly temperament and humane politics’ who approaches him after a reading to express her dismay about the poor water buffalo shot by Rat Kiley. The narrator’s over-the-top anger that the woman has missed the point of his story is decidedly part of his problem getting at the truth of war-story-telling. The narrator’s sense of what that project entails clearly includes women, or more properly put, implicates them: ‘It’s always a woman,’ as he states. Specifically, women are representatives and objects of love, desire, beauty, and sex, though never soldiers or people the narrator respects. They inform war writing’s aesthetic, ethical, rhetorical, ontological, epistemological, and every other kind of -ological structure, but the images of women who don’t write back or listen well suggest that the narrator has trouble figuring how they do so meaningfully. In other words, the problem is his, not Curt Lemon’s sister’s or the well-intentioned woman in the audience. The narrator’s frustratingly incomplete conceptualization of war and war writing, bereft of understanding how women have important roles to play or things to say, stands as a signifying dramatization of the male-dominated and male-centric state of war-writing prior to Iraq and Afghanistan. Today’s cohort of women veterans and women war authors, we can thus understand, are in the process of addressing and rectifying that failure of communication….”

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In future posts, I’ll sketch a few ways I think the presence of women in significant numbers both in uniform and in the ranks of war writers has changed war-writing. I’m also thinking about ways that masculinity has reconfigured itself in modern war fiction, perhaps beneficially and admirably so, but probably more likely in an effort to re-instantiate its privileges on new contemporary terms. I’m glad to hear from anyone else who also has thoughts on the matter.

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