HOUR OF THE WOLFF
Byline: Daniel Peres
If people know anything about Tobias Wolff, it is most likely because they saw the movie based on his memoir, “This Boy’s Life.” It’s the story of a young man, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his relationship with his abusive father (Robert De Niro). While the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office, it undoubtedly reached more people than the book it was based on.
The irony is not lost on Wolff. When not writing, he is a professor of English at Syracuse University in upstate New York — teaching the value of American letters. And he is painfully aware of the negative effect television and movies have had on books.
“People don’t read as much,” he admits. “Movies and television have made enormous inroads — it’s a great temptation for someone with a passive inclination. Reading requires an exercise of imagination and thought, whereas TV doesn’t. Writers definitely resent that, just as a child resents the newborn getting all the attention. “My students’ references are very often about television shows, or even video games. I have to wonder about the depth of their learning — I fear it’s no deeper than the screen.”
Yet, Wolff, whose second memoir, “In Pharaoh’s Army,” was published by Alfred A. Knopf late last year — and nominated for a National Book Award — has no regrets about selling his book, and says he would do the same with his latest.
“I don’t write in a closet,” he says. “I want to write for as large an audience as possible.”
In addition, he points out, a great many people went out and bought “This Boy’s Life” after seeing the movie.
Wolff believes the writer’s audience has diminished over the years, and while he is doing what he can to cultivate it — such as hosting a reading of short stories at Manhattan’s Symphony Space this Wednesday — his outlook is somewhat fatalistic.
“In the Twenties, there were so many magazines that published short stories, which were essentially television shows. People would read one or two in a sitting. They had the character of sitcoms or the mystery one might watch week to week,” says Wolff. “The readership writers lament they have lost may never have been there. That just might have been the television audience.”
Still, he sits down to write every day, and is currently working on a collection of short stories.
“What a short story can do that a novel can’t is enter your memory and allow you to experience it as something that happened to you. It slips the defenses of the mind. That is the moment of fusion between reader and writer,” says Wolff. “That is the only power the writer really has.”